‘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.