Points of view

Yinka Shonibare: the rebel within

27.02.2019 | By PAOLO BOCCHI

“Yinka Shonibare could have been a great designer, a “fashion rebel”, a creator of stunning haute couture pieces. He chose to be an artist. And to go into depth on the theme of his roots.
The results he has achieved have been displayed in galleries and museums all around the world and, recently, even in the open air: in Central Park, New York.”

 

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Fashion is not as shallow as some may think. Every time you step out of your home,
you send out a series of clear messages through what you’ve decided to wear that day. Actually, fashion is a complex way to “read” the society we live in, surrounding each of us all the time. Through fashion you can figure out a lot about social classes, gender issues, political struggles and much more. Fashion is a tool through which you can explore sexuality, politics and identity-related stereotypes. In my case, if you look at some of my works, you will notice the unexpected presence of some “short-circuits” that I bring about through a certain use of fashion and stereotypes. I like to merge content and shape.
I’m talking about the works in which I combine classic Victorian-cut clothing and African ethnic fabrics, re-locating the two elements in a whole new context. Hence the double perspective: the observer’s eye and mind see the familiar shape of the Victorian outfit (seen countless times in paintings and movies) as somehow disturbed by the flashy colors of the African prints. Something doesn’t feel right to stereotype-based minds. How can Victorian and African coexist? How can they live in peace, as colonizers and colonized? And if we consider that the fabrics I use are only called African, but they’re actually Indonesian batiks produced by the Dutch to be exported to West Africa, then finally bought by myself at London’s Brixton market, the play of cross-references and “certainty crushing” is complete. And complex, indeed. When they see my works, the observers are confused, at first. Then “forced” to make questions in their minds and find answers. Somehow, it’s as if fashion pushed people to question themselves on those political issues that take concrete shape in our society every day. Here lies the deep meaning of my art, I guess.

 

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Yinka Shonibare, “The Rebel Within”, as he loves to define himself, is a British artist of Nigerian descent, born in London in 1962 and famous for his flamboyant installations that, through wax and jazzy fabrics, use the language of fashion to deal with difficult themes like “colonialism and post-colonialism in the Global Era” (and mind-blow the public).

 

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His works have been displayed all around the world, basically, from Venice’s Biennale to Kassel’s documenta, where he was invited to in 2002 by Okwui Enwezor.
Shonibare’s pieces, from Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle (in which the Admiral’s ship sails are made of flashy African fabric) to Trumpet Boy (where the boy’s head is represented through a celestial globe, to keep his racial identity undetermined) have the power to cast doubts on absolute historic truths.

 

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In May 2018, Shonibare became an exhibition curator, too, by arranging the setup of “Talisman in the Age of Difference” in the rooms of London’s Stephen Friedman Gallery. Here, many central names of the artistic&political debate saw their works displayed one next to the other, from Frédéric Bruly Bouabré to Ghada Amer, then Zanele Muholi, Abe Odedina, Marlene Dumas, David Hammos, Kendell Geers, Isaac Julien, Zina Saro-Wiwa, etc.
In spring 2018 Yinka Shonibare had the honor of seeing one of his works (from the series Wind Sculpture) installed in Central Park, New York.

 

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Which made it possible for the above-mentioned Indo-Afro-Dutch fabrics and their vivid colors – a symbol of integration and global interaction – to flutter in the American sky, just a few meters away from the Trump Tower.
Such cultural coincidence probably put a smile on Yinka Shonibare’s face.
We’re sure it did.