Yinka Shonibare 1: MAD world
Tracey Emin would take you straight to her bedroom, open up her diary and photo album for a few tortured hours of show and tell. Damien Hurst might take you to the aquarium... or to the morgue. If you're lucky, only your senses will be assaulted. But with Yinka Shonibare, you'll probably end up rummaging through bolts of fabric at the Brixton markets.
Shonibare is the Lenny Henry of the art world. More savvy than savage. Not so much a political agitator as a polite one. With him, you'll nod and smile your way to enlightenment.
An exhibition of Shonibare's work in a variety of media -- billed as the most comprehensive showing of the artist's work to date -- has just opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. It's there until February 1, 2009.
The MCA then tours this exhibition to the Brooklyn Museum, New York, and the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian in DC.
I spoke to Shonibare in July.
[CHRIS BOYD:] I REALLY APPRECIATE THAT YOUR BALLERINAS HAVE HEADS!
[Yinka Shonibare:] They're real people! I think I should be in a little bit of trouble if I did it to real people.
white swan and black swan
IS CREATING ART A SUBSTITUTE FOR THERAPY FOR YOU? SHOOTING HEADS OFF?
Oh yes. You're talking about How to blow up two heads at once. The ladies, huh?
A lot of my work relates to do with identity issues and also takes in current affairs as well and so when a lot of the global conflict was happening, there's also humour in my work, and when the Iraq war happened and then of course Afghanistan you had -- literally every day -- there was conflict in the news every day.
As an artist, how can I explore those issues? Is there an absurd side to this? Is there a funny side to it? There's also this sense of gallows humour if you like.
I'm thinking, okay, two sides are fighting. Each side thinks their P.O.V. is the better point of view. And the other people are the baddies and [that] they're good.
Actually, at the end of the day, nobody really wins a war because you're both inflicting maximum damage.
SO IT'S YOUR TAKE ON MUTUALLY ASSURED DESTRUCTION?
Exactly. Exactly. Trying to find, also, a humorous angle to the absurdity of it as well. Also do something to engage people without being too heavy handed.
SO, HOW IMPORTANT IS IT THAT YOUR ART BE LIKABLE?
I think that you have to engage people. You have to make people interested in the art. One of the ways of doing that is to produce something -- even if it's a horrible subject matter -- you have to find a way of getting people's attention. One of the ways of doing that is the beauty of the work. Under that beauty is also the dark as well.
SO THE BEAUTY & GALLOWS HUMOUR IS AN INVITATION TO LOOK CLOSER.
Yes. And then hopefully -- once you've managed to get people's attention -- hopefully they might want to go further and ask further questions about why is he doing that, what's he doing that for?
I'm not a politician so my work is never about trying to preach a fixed point of view at people. It's more about highlighting things and let people think for themselves. And also, I'm an artist. And what I do... The entertainment angle is also an important part of my work.
I know that a lot of conceptual artists don't want to acknowledge that or talk about the aspects or decoration or the aspects of beauty because there's a lot of snobbery in the art world. But I don't really work that way. I want to use common, everyday materials that people can relate to -- and talk about important issues with.
I get my fabric from Brixton market and the fabrics I use are Indonesian influenced batik fabrics that the Dutch produced around the turn of the century for sale to the Indonesian market. But in Indonesia, they wanted to protect their own trade so the fabrics were rejected. So the Dutch versions of batik were tried in West Africa where they were very successful.
THEY WERE ADOPTED BY THE LOCALS.
Yes, exactly. And I'm very -- the fabrics are associated with Africa. When the people see them they think Africa. African fabric. But at the same time, I'm keen to highlight that what you might see as being fixed can also have other aspects to it.
And the fabrics are not -- they're international in a way. They're kind of trade routes... Dutch, Holland, and then Indonesia and then Africa. All of the identity can be quite complicated.
BECAUSE OF OUR PROXIMITY TO INDONESIA, WE'RE QUITE FAMILAR WITH THESE FABRICS... WE ASSOCIATE BATIK WITH HIPPIES AND DRUG-SMOKING!
I like the fact that you said that. Because what I'm doing -- what I'm doing there is that paradox of... on the one hand, I take something from popular culture, and then I take it into stiff Victoriana. Stiff upper class Victoriana. And of course that stiff upper class Victoriana is almost a metaphor for the establishment. And hippies [are] in opposition to establishment.
AND TO AUTHORITY --
AND TO REGIMENTATION.
Exactly. So what you have there is a contradiction. You have a contradiction of the batik from pop culture against the establishment Victoriana.
And the idea for me using Victoriana as a metaphor came from Margaret Thatcher in the 80s was talking about returning to Victorian values.
SCARY!! I DON'T REMEMBER HER SAYING THAT. VICTORIAN VALUES?!
I was thinking: Okay, so where do I stand? I live in England. I'm from Nigeria. Nigeria was colonised by the British. The Victorian era was the height of colonialism in Africa. How do I relate to the repressive Victorian regime?
So Victoriana for me actually means conquest and imperialism. And so, in a sense, it is actually my fear. So what I then decided to do was actually confront my fear and face my fear. And the way to confront my fear, to actually parody that fear. A lot of the work that came out of my desire to face my fear and to turn it into parody.
The irony of all of this is that -- since my work has actually been about what imperialism means and how that relates to my own identity -- it's quite ironic that I was then made a member of the order of the British Empire.
[LOL] I BELIEVE YOU MAKE A POINT OF USING YOUR MBE AT EVERY OPPORTUNITY. IS THAT TRUE?
Absolutely! I use it everywhere. So my actual artist's name is Yinka Shonibare MBE.
EXCELLENT! MY [RELATIONSHIP DELETED] WAS AN MBE... AND SHE WAS A LESBIAN!!
I don't think that the queen knew that she was a lesbian!
I VERY MUCH DOUBT IT! [...] NICE TO BE INVISIBLE SOMETIMES.
Perhaps it might be slightly easier for them... persecuted gay men... good that the world has changed a bit.
I WAS REMINDED WHILE YOU WERE TALKING OF LANGUAGE, OF ENGLISH THE LINGUA FRANCA IN THE COLONIES. I REALISE IT'S PROBABLY STILL THE NUMBER ONE LANGUAGE IN NIGERIA --
Absolutely. If you want to get on in the world... If you don't know English, you're going to find that quite difficult.
HAS AN INFLUENCE ON THE LANGUAGE. "POLLUTES" IT, GIVES IT COLOUR, GIVES IT SLANG AND BROKEN ENGLISH. I UNDERSTAND THERE'S QUITE A BIG RAP CULTURE IN NIGERIA --
Oh yeah. Absolutely. There [are] local versions of English. The language has changed. A lot of people who win the Booker prize don't have English as their first language. People like Salman Rushdie. The English language has been taken on in the the third world, if you like, or the other world. Has been reappropriated...
A number of Indian writers have also won the Booker. English is something that develops according to the local language. For example in Australia, Australian English is also very different from the English here. It sort of evolves.
People are not passively colonised. Yes, they may have English, but they do make it their own. And they do develop their own identity after that.
SO WHEN I LOOK AT THOSE BEAUTIFUL PHOTOGRAPHS OF TUTUS MADE OF THIS LUSH MULTICOLOURED FABRIC, IT GIVES ME MUCH JOY BECAUSE -- I'VE BEEN A BALLET CRITIC FOR MORE THAN TWENTY YEARS. I KNOW HOW RIGID AND STARCHY -- AND HOSTILE TO FREE THINKING AND IMAGINATION -- THE BALLET WORLD CAN BE...
Absolutely. As was my experience when... It's a short film in collaboration with the Royal Ballet in London. It's from Swan Lake. It's my version. The film is called Odile and Odette. Odile being the bad character and Odette being the good swan. So what I've done... I've made two characters, one black, one white. And they dance opposite each another with a hollow frame in between them, so you get the illusion that one is a reflection of the other.
Heads or tails? A still from Shonibare's film Odile and Odette.
TELL ME WHICH IS WHICH IS THE GOOD?
You don't know.
That's the point of the film, cos it's constantly switching. The viewpoint is constantly switching all the time. The film actually will be in the show.
WHAT ELSE WILL YOU BE BRINGING TO SYDNEY? IS THERE ANY SITE-SPECIFIC MATERIAL OR ANY NEW MATERIAL?
A piece that might be outside... It's a white flag at half mast. This is a piece I did for the Southbank Centre in London. They have a flagpole outside. And this, again, was during the conflict. So that's one piece that will be outside.
And it's the first time, actually... In relation to the rest of my work it's quite dramatic. Cos it's the first time I've actually taken the pattern away.
YEAH, I WAS WONDERING IF IT WAS THE FIRST TIME YOU'VE USED PLAIN WHITE...
It was almost like a halt or a break. When the horrible things were happening in Iraq... It was more about the frustration of peace and the fact that... When a flag is at half mast, it's always about mourning the loss of something...
AND YET, OF COURSE, THE WHITE FLAG IS THE FLAG OF SURRENDER, ISN'T IT?
In this case, it's actually not surrender. It's indeterminate because it's actually half-mast. It's not fully flown. It's at half mast. So that's one that's gonna be outside.
In the actual exhibition, there will be major pieces of mine. There's a piece called Scramble for Africa. I don't know if you've see an image of this.
I DON'T THINK I HAVE. DESCRIBE IT TO ME?
It's a recreation of the Berlin conference in the 19th century...
OH, OKAY. IS IT A RECTANGULAR TABLE AND THERE ARE PEOPLE WITH HANDS ON EACH OTHER'S ARMS? IT'S LIKE --
IT'S LIKE A CARTIER-BRESSON PHOTOGRAPH.
It was when Africa was being divided up. It was in Europe. They had this conference in Berlin. And the conference was called Scramble for Africa. So on the table there's a map of Africa drawn. So it's merely capturing a moment when all these brainless people got around the table -- headless, brainless -- to actually divide up the spoils amongst themselves. See if they have original entitlements to it.
The other major piece that's going to be in the show is a piece called Gallantry and Criminal Conversation.
THAT'S THE ONE WITH THE CARRIAGE SUSPENDED IN AIR, IS IT?
AND A LOT OF SEXUAL ACTIVITY!
Exactly! It's a huge installation. I was actually looking at power and sex tourism. And during the "grand tour" in Europe in the 18th and 19th century people travelled to places like Venice. And the idea was to go and learn more about culture. But actually it was a great opportunity for people to be sexually liberated as well. So they couldn't be gay at home, they could do this in Italy. It's also about sex tourism and power. Of course, as you know because of your proximity to Thailand... It's always a power relationship. The powerful have the money to explore their sexual fantasies in far-flung places of the world. So that piece is more like a playful way of exploring that.