New York

“Yinka Shonibare MBE”

YINKA SHONIBARE HAS often called himself “the outsider within.” It’s fitting, then, that the entrance to the artist’s midcareer retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum in New York was both welcoming and sharply forbidding. Leisure Lady (with Ocelots), 2001, greeted visitors with a life-size Victorian figure whose ostentatiously outstretched arm and splayed fingers seemed to usher us into her dominion. Yet her other hand tautly held the leashes of three barely contained exotic wildcats, suggesting the violence born of the Enlightenment desire to colonize, classify, and tame the natural world. Shonibare has extended this ambiguity to the figure’s racial identity, via his characteristic method of leaving bodies headless, and the woman is clothed in Dutch wax-printed cotton, the artist’s signature material, chosen precisely for its murky origins: It is an “African” textile but was actually created by the Dutch from Indonesian designs and sold to the West African market. The patterned fabric is a part that stands in for the whole of misplaced cultural assumptions, of hopelessly adulterated notions about native and foreign, inside and outside. And just as the fiberglass felines appear ready to spring past the sculpture’s boundaries, Shonibare perversely invokes that excessive “other” of Enlightenment aesthetics—the border, the ornamental.

The retrospective was an elegant synopsis of such margin-and-center maneuvers, taking up the historical connections between leisure and power, exploitation and commerce, European colonialism and African identity. Organized by Rachel Kent for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, the selection of sculptural installations, photographic tableaux, videos, and paintings represented flash points in Shonibare’s acute practice, ranging from his early gridded square canvases of Dutch wax-printed fabric—a wry infiltration of modernist abstraction with “African” decoration—to his recent investigation of Enlightenment thinkers and their exploratory pursuits (such as the tradition of the grand tour and the gratification of illicit desires that it could facilitate).

In Brooklyn, the exhibition extended into the museum’s period rooms, disclosing Shonibare’s stealth delivery through a new site-specific, multipart installation titled Mother and Father Worked Hard so I Can Play, 2009. In one of many sly insertions, the artist placed the figure of a small boy, typically headless and garbed in wax-printed fabric, inside the bedchamber of the reconstructed Trippe House, a Maryland home that dates from roughly 1730—a move that recalls the inclusion of an enslaved African attendant in another well-known Maryland scene, the colonial American artist Justus Engelhardt Kühn’s portrait of the young scion of a prominent local family, Henry Darnall III, ca. 1710. Not only does Shonibare’s addition remind us of America’s paradoxical status as both former colony and former slaveholding nation, it again evinces the artist’s fascination with the logic of the supplement. This is, after all, an artist who has officially appended to his name a suffix that nearly overshadows his identity: MBE, indicating that he was made a member of the Order of the British Empire, in 2004.

Juxtaposition and addition were likewise used to great effect in this tightly pruned retrospective (even if many works were given their own gallery). Black Gold II, 2006, a wall installation of twenty-five circular painted Dutch wax fabric canvases arrayed against a graphic rendering of black liquid, gained meaning through its placement next to Scramble for Africa, 2003, Shonibare’s seminal installation about the Berlin Conference of 1884–85, which formalized Europe’s territorial expansion into Africa during the 1880s. At that time, gold and other natural resources motivated Europe’s incursion into Africa and particularly the “gold coast,” just as oil, or “black gold,” would be a chief motivation in the postcolonial period. Shonibare’s headless gentlemen are seated around a table painted with an image of the African continent, yet the Dutch wax-printed fabric in both works points to the bidirectional cultural effects that the colonies would have on the seats of their empires. The sparse installation, with one cavernous gallery devoted to these two works alone, surprisingly allowed the pieces to dominate their outsize room.

The inclusion of Odile and Odette, 2005, Shonibare’s second video, introduced his recent investigation into psychological interiority. The piece depicts two ballet dancers, one black and one white, dressed in costumes made of identical Dutch wax fabric and creating a perfect reflection of each other. We hear their breathing as they dance and pose in front of a mirror; we see their private moments of insecurity—shifting their weight and staring deep in thought, gnawing on a fingernail, or brushing something off their frock. As we view the perspective of both dancers on a loop, Shonibare asks us to consider, Who is the reflection of whom? Based on Tchaikovsky’s twinned characters in Swan Lake, Odile and Odette seems to develop a proposition from an earlier piece, a 1995 installation of three headless sculptures wearing Victorian dresses made from Dutch wax fabric, playfully titled How Does a Girl like You Get to Be a Girl like You? While this piece was not in the show, its title is worth recalling, for it articulates the interrogative at the heart of Shonibare’s enterprise: the continuous questioning that defines identity, the mutuality of cultural influence in both inner and outer realms.

Shonibare has what he calls a “Trojan horse relationship with institutions.” But he does not only breach institutions from within; he shapes and selects them from without, as seen in his retrospective’s diverse itinerary—a contemporary art museum, an encyclopedic museum, and an African art museum. The polymath artist shows us what subversion might look like when there is no longer a clear inside or outside, core or periphery, to guide us.

Travels to the National Museum of African Art, Washington, DC, Nov. 11, 2009–Mar. 7, 2010.

Sarah Lewis is a curator and writer based in New York and New Haven.