New York

Yinka Shonibare

The Studio Museum in Harlem

A perceptive New York dealer I needn’t name once called a prolific artist I shouldn’t name “too smart to be an artist.” Words, like pictures, can lie, but indications are that Yinka Shonibare and his art are equally and exceedingly smart. Shonibare is that rarity whose stated intentions and lucid analyses actually correspond to and enrich the work on view. All that’s left, it appears, for his increasingly numerous commentators to do is recount the artist’s dual background—he was born and educated in London, where he is based, but raised in Lagos and describe the painting suites, installations, sculpture, and narrative photo series in redolent detail.

Yet smart art doesn’t merely toe its creator’s line, for it can never be so programmatic as motive and theory would determine. A magnetic sampling of Shonibare’s work at the Studio Museum in Harlem and one potent piece in P.S. 1’s anthological “The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945-1994” are summary and springboard for anyone interested in how art supposedly about identity refuses to stand still for the camera.

With the exception of Double Dutch, 1994, an early wall-mounted grid of fifty small acrylic-on-textile panels, and the 1998 photo series “Diary of a Victorian Dandy,” exhibited originally as posters in the London Underground, the Studio Museum show concentrated on Shonibare’s reputation-making sculpture of Western period clothing made of “African” fabric, most set on dressmaker’s dummies or headless mannequins. Shonibare has indicated that he wishes to make work with crossover appeal, and with these costume pieces he seems to have succeeded. The bumptious hues and splendid patterns of both the everyday and more expensive Dutch wax-printed cottons, heightened and brightened in a gallery context, startle the eye. A “disparity” response follows almost immediately: These fabrics usually associated with black-African cultures are cut, matched, and sewn into eighteenth- and nineteenth-century raiment that looks storybook European. Titles confirm the impression: Victorian Couple, 19th Century Kid (Charles Dickens), 19th Century Kid (Charlotte Brontë).

Yet this is not, as I heard one art-worlder say, “one-joke art.” If it appears so,the joke is on us, because history quickly unravels any impression of a simple hybrid. Nineteenth-century photographs of black-African middle-class urban-dwellers (there were not many) show women and men dressed in local versions of European fashions, in the same sweltering bombazine and shot silk as their European colonial “neighbors.” So, too, did Victorian fashion at home eagerly accommodate the spoils of conquered countries—many an India-based colonel gratified his London wife with a Kashmir Paisley wool shawl. The so-called African fabrics themselves sport a worldwide genealogy: Dutch-originated for a tepid Indonesian market and later produced in Manchester, England, by Asian workers for West Africa, they epitomize the common modern fracture between the appearance and fact of material identity. African fabric not from Africa is sewn to mimic Western fashion that is not just Western and shown on headless bodies that claim no race at all.

The fabric sculptures possess other attractions as well. Five Under Garments and Much More, 1995, comprises bloated torsos suspended overhead by fishing line and dressed in what look to be Victorian underblouses tailored in—no sunrise—that Anglo-African cotton. Because of their positioning and size, the amputated forms seem disturbingly, almost surreally, off. But this non-narrative shopwindow grouping also ignites a desire to buy and possibly wear these coverings, which would not be out of place in the neo-Benetton fashion destinations of London or Tokyo. They urge fetishization beyond representation, beyond even art-world worth.

Shonibare’s literal and figurative layering becomes swooningly punchy in what looks to be a simple adult-size headless form clad in a skillfully Africanized mid-Victorian dress, at P.S. I. The high treble of the fabric pulls the fussy draping into a clean silhouette—until you walk closer. Is that a man’s waistcoat and chain? Are those male lapels on the cropped top? Then, in the rear, the giveaway: a bustle overlaid by the jacket’s tails. So we stand before a full-throttle griffin—-fashion-plate gender blend, a colonial couturier’s nightmare that is simultaneously ameliorated and exaggerated by the skirmish between fabric and costume, surface and shape. If one had any doubt that a “dress” could map fabric construction and social fabric and social construction and still not be pinned down, Girl/Boy, 1998, puts it to rest.

The same year, Shonibare completed “Diary of a Victorian Dandy,” displayed at the Studio Museum as large-scale gilt-framed color prints. These images are prop-heavy and costumed day-in-the-life, wages-of-sin tableaux in which the artist, an ebony-skinned man among many white others, commands center stage. He’s black and not a servant! He’s rich! (A few black men at the time were.) The friends, floozies, and footmen seem impossibly color-blind, which is the point: No one, in art history or history taken plain, could have been.

The fabric sculptures have few direct precedents, but this work has many, from Hogarth’s rakes to Cindy Sherman’s fakes to McDermott & McGough’s dandy immersion to, closest, Eleanor Antin’s 1977 Crimean adventure as Nurse Nightingale. Now that university courses in History of the Dandy are well-established, one may wonder what brought Shonibare to the topic of the male figure who through orchidaceous self-presentation makes art of himself I expect he wishes to manipulate certain pregnant stories the way he has employed his multivalent fabric: to illuminate a connection between fitting, as in clothes, and fitting in. In a recent statement the artist shows he is well aware that being a black man as well as a dandy doubles the dose of outsider, an observation that his riveting photographic series “Dorian Gray,” 2001 (based on Albert Lewin’s hothouse 1945 film and not present in either exhibition), grabs and runs with. We know the sordid end of that cautionary tale, but this protean artist has at least a few more risky roles up his sleeves.

Jeff Weinstein is fine-arts editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer.