‘Utopias’, Yinka Shonibare CBE (RA)

Following the commission of ‘Wind Sculpture’ for Howick Place, Yinka Shonibare’s first permanent work in the public domain, HS Projects presented ‘Utopias’, an exhibition of some of the artist’s emblematic works. An interesting dialogue is created between ‘Wind Sculpture’ and the works in the exhibition, continuing Shonibare’s focus on themes of colonialism, trade, race and his signature use of batik Dutch wax fabric designs, better known as ‘African Textiles’.

In ‘Ms Utopia’ (2013) Shonibare presents a tall female figure clothed in the artist’s signature Dutch wax batik fabric, with a celestial globe in place of a head. Conceived as a symbol of peace, she offers the viewer an oversized bunch of hand-made flowers. As in much of Shonibare’s work, the aesthetic allure and vivid patterns of the figure’s costume and bouquet serve as a façade to the complex truths that the artist is exploring. ‘Ms Utopia’ wears a brightly-hued dress with puffed sleeves and cuffs echoing the extravagance of the Rococo period, made from a fabric associated with African identity. However this cloth is in fact a mass-produced textile manufactured by the Dutch after original Indonesian designs. Having described himself as a ‘post-colonial’ hybrid, Shonibare questions the meaning of cultural and national definitions and employs the device of the Dutch wax batik fabric to demonstrate the complex and inter-related nature of industry, society and the modern geo-political environment.

The vibrant bunch of gardenias, camelias, peonies and roses is also created from this African cloth and appears to burst with life. However the flowers also serve as a memento mori and their ephemeral nature is designed to remind the viewer of their mortality and of the fragility of human life. This duality is typical of Shonibare’s work.

Shonibare’s ongoing fascination with the cosmos also plays a significant role in his work. ‘Ms Utopia’ bears a globe head which displays the planetary alignments, referencing the senses of wonderment and curiosity that epitomize the human condition and lending a sense of endless possibility to the sculpture. Shonibare’s mastery is in creating politically and culturally relevant work which seduces with its colour and beauty. Coined for the 1516 book of the same name, the term utopia describes a fictional island proposed by Sir Thomas More as an ideal society. Shonibare’s work frequently explores the theme of revolution, drawing a stark contrast between the utopian ideals inherent in anarchic action and the darker realities of its consequences. As the artist explains, ‘In the short term, on an individual level, you have to work to get yourself to a better position; even if it’s some kind of utopia, you make an effort, you don’t sit back and allow yourself to be oppressed, you fight. I think that’s important. People have to judge history later on’.

‘Adam and Eve’ (2013) is one of Shonibare’s most compelling tableaux, in which he brings to life the biblical tale of utopian ideals and the stark reality of their consequence. Shonibare often references historical moments, art history and well known stories to comment on today’s global climate of social and political disillusionment. He explores both historical and contemporary cycles of revolution, seeking to demonstrate the destructive patterns of human behaviour that repeat themselves through time.

Shonibare’s romanticised version of the story is reimagined in a theatrical form. The figures are headless, referencing the beheadings of the French Revolution, which has come to be a hallmark of the artist’s work. Their luxurious clothes are remade in his trademark Dutch wax batik fabric, which was inspired by Indonesian design, mass-produced by the Dutch and eventually sold to the colonies in West Africa. In the 1960’s the material became a new sign of African identity and independence. While the scene set may appear idyllic, Shonibare weaves in fragments of sin and decadence. The female figure’s soft bustle gown is beautifully embellished with bunches of flora, and capped with delicate ivy-shaped sleeves. At the same time, her pose cleverly mimics the diabolical snake cloying at her from above. The male dandy figure steps away, removing himself from the scene and permitting the destined act to take place. This work is a complex and nuanced comment on the state of today’s globalised world and how it is dictated by individual choice.

‘Totem Paintings’, (2011) combine Dutch wax African textiles with thick, impasto paint, juxtaposing vibrant patterns against an intense jet-black background. Shonibare’s tactile paintwork alternates between the side and front of the batik canvases. The tall and slender rectangular forms are framed with a multitude of colourful steel nails that pierce the edges of the canvas. The nails are a direct reference to African ‘minkisi’ voodoo figures made by the Congo people of west-central Africa. Notably, these ‘minkisi’ figures were seized from the indigenous peoples by the colonial forces as they were deemed sinister. As a pop interpretation of African fetish objects, the works speak of artificial exoticism. Through the use of industrially produced textiles, nails and paint, Shonibare explores the stigma associated with the emblematic form of a totem as a means to investigate cultural identities and histories and combines it with his usual ironic expression.

‘Utopias’ was at 5 Howick Place from January to June 2018.

‘Paradigm Store’

HS Projects curated the second major group exhibition at 5 Howick Place, ‘Paradigm Store’. ’Paradigm Store’ examines the interface between art and design and the latent socio-economic and political forces that underpin it through new and recent work by seventeen UK and international artists.

Spread over five floors and 80,000 sq ft, HS Projects brings together a diverse line-up of emerging and established artists to explore issues of the decorative and the functional through a mixed range of media, proposing new ways of re-considering our environment and social structures. From immersive, site-specific installations and large-scale sculptural works to paintings, performance and film, the exhibition aims to investigate artists’ unrivalled engagement with art and life through reference to the readymade, 20th Century Modernism, architecture, specific histories and origins, as well as the subversion of language and modes of popular culture.

Highlights of ‘Paradigm Store’ include a new ‘still-life’ ceramic arrangement by British artist Simon Bedwell; an ‘art store’ installation by artist duo Cullinan & Richards; an animated rock garden by Harold Offeh; a collage installation of cut-up fragments and clay bricks by Paula Roush; a sculptural relief by Theo Stamatoyiannis which questions the boundaries of sculpture and architecture; a free-form installation by Beatriz Olabarrieta that combines low-fi building materials with video; and new collage sculptural structures by Anne Harild. A film by Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes inspired by Japanese ‘sangaku’ is shown in the UK for the first time, courtesy of the Cartier Foundation, alongside other works making a UK debut by Kendell Geers, Claire Barclay, Nike Savvas and David Shrigley. Other participating artists include Yutaka Sone, Maria Nepomuceno, Ulla von Brandenburg, Elizabeth Neel and Tobias Rehberger.

During the private view there was a performance by artist collaborators Meta Drcar and Dori Deng featuring three female dancers responding to the architecture of the space; as well as a live performance of sculptural objects by Harold Offeh based on his series of work looking at elements of historical 17th and 18th century gardens as sites of artifice, spectacle and theatre.

‘Paradigm Store’ was funded by Invesco Real Estate (IRE) and Urban & Civic, the joint developer behind 5 Howick Place with Doughty Hanson & Co Real Estate.

‘Paradigm Store’ was at 5 Howick Place, Victoria London, from 25 September – 5 November 2014.


‘Legacy’, Harold Offeh

Working with HS Projects, Harold Offeh developed a project with ETAT (Encouragement Through the Arts and Talking for the over 50s) and the residents from Peabody’s Pimlico Estate in response to the Post-Olympic legacy. The focus of the project was to develop a series of posters looking at some of the key themes that drove the 2012 Olympics. Posters are firmly embedded within the visual culture and history of the Olympics, capturing the spirit of the host cities’ games.

The starting point for the project was to look back, after the games had finished, and capture responses to London’s 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. The members of the group assessed the impact of the games on themselves, their communities, London and the nation as a whole.

Harold Offeh’s conversation with the group started by looking at some of the key themes that drove the Olympic project. London’s 2012 motto was to inspire a generation. He asked members of the group what they had found inspirational about London 2012. Many of the initial conversations focused on identifying interests, likes and dislikes about the games and their overall impact.

The group developed a series of posters from their initial ideas. The posters celebrated the group’s enthusiasm for the sporting and cultural success of the games, but also reflected more personal associations. Many members of the group took great inspiration from the Paralympics and the inspiring achievements of athletes and the positive shift in attitude to disability it brought with it. The exhibition featured a lively and eclectic mix of approaches from an embroidered felt celebration of British cycling success, to photographs taken during the Paralympic games accompanied by poetic text.

‘Legacy’ was commissioned by HS Projects and funded by the Insight Community Arts Programme (2002 – 2015).

The project ran from October 2012 to March 2013.