Yinka Shonibare at Ikon Gallery (1999)

Review of exhibition Dressing Down in Birmingham, England.

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 15 September 2009
This review first appeared in Sculpture magazine, 18(6), page 77 in 1999.

Yinka Shonibare at Ikon Gallery

Over the past few years, Yinka Shonibare has increasingly gained attention with his work shown in London, including the Royal Academy’s “Sensation” in 1997, and his participation in various group shows around the globe. His current exhibition at the Ikon Gallery, “Dressing Down,” featured a selection of previous “hits” from across the media of photography and hyphenated-installation including painting, sculpture, ceramic, fabric, and tableaux.

On the surface, Yinka Shonibare presents juxtapositions and interplays across material, form, and subject matter, which address issues related to race, class, the colonial and the colonized, and the relationships between the historical and the contemporary. To some degree, Yinka Shonibare draws from his English and African experiences— born in London in 1962, he was raised in Lagos, Nigeria until the age of 17, when he returned to study in the UK.

His photography refers to the Victorian era and various aspects of its cultural history, yet he reinterprets and intervenes by inserting himself as the primary focal point. Two of the five large-scale photographs from his “Diary of a Victorian Dandy” series (1998), (originally commissioned and produced by the Institute of International Visual Arts [inIVA] for the London Underground) were included. In these, Yinka Shonibare adopts the role of a dandy— “someone who used his clothes, style, and wit to gain access to the aristocracy”— and poses in a billiard room and a music room in a part-intervention/ part-camp fashionesque representation, with contemporary commentary.

According to the Ikon’s literature, “Today, aspirational black and working class people sometimes feel they have to adopt the style and mannerisms of the English upper classes in order to be accepted”; Yinka Shonibare questions that very structure and process. Meanwhile, with his ceramic-photographic installation, Upstairs Downstairs (1997), he sets a photograph of an 18th-century mansion behind a series of plates, which refer to a set given to an aristocrat. However, on these plates, Yinka Shonibare imposes the names of workers, including “Holland John, Ratcatcher 1890.” Brightly colored, the plates connect to other colorful works, like his abstract painting and “African” cloth installations, Double Dutch (1994) and Feather Pink (1997), which approach Western Minimalism, conceptualism, and Pop art.

Yinka Shonibare is perhaps best known for his fabric works. Mr. and Mrs. Andrews without their Heads (1998), addresses aristocratic history and directly refers to the portrait Mr. and Mrs. Andrews (1748–49) by Thomas Gainsborough. Mr. and Mrs. Andrews become sculptural with bench, dog, and gun, yet are covered with “African” cloth, alluding to the socio-economics of the colonizer/ colonized, and Yinka Shonibare intervenes further by giving them a headless, guillotined look.

Other cloth works again address the Victorian. In the tableau, Victorian Philanthropist’s Parlour (1998), Yinka Shonibare creates a 19th-century room— in reduced scale— with furnishings and walls covered in cloth and imposed with the image of black soccer players, playing on the idea that when successful at sport, blacks are referred to as “British”; yet if they “have problems,” they are identified by their country of origin.

Yinka Shonibare adds a layered twist for these cloth works: the cloth is not really African, but “Dutch wax print”— a colonial product. His usage and research identifying the origin of the cloth plays the fake against the authentic, raises issue with the abstract reference to “Africa,” and he asks us to reconsider the surface of symbolic associations, its function, and its cultural “authenticity” within an interactive global context.

The fabric-subject matter associations, and layered context then move into more global ideas of “difference.” With Alien Obsessives: Mum, Dad, and the Kids (1998), Yinka Shonibare wraps a sci-fi-looking, nuclear family in his trademark cloth, in part referring to the form’s Cold War film and political context. At first, the figures appear to be exotic and playful— disturbingly toy-like for amusement. Yet, the alien and title also refer to Other passport holders of the past and present, be it non-UK, and now non-EU, while specifically drawing from the associations of the cloth. Partly addressing the issue of racism within Britain, the site and selection of the show were well-chosen; Birmingham’s urban population is perhaps England’s most multicultural.