British-Nigerian artist, Yinka Shonibare, MBE, will return to the African continent for his first solo exhibition in 15 years. Ruins Decorated, a new body of work that sparks a state of charged curiosity, will be on show at the Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg from 1 September to 6 October 2018.
Yinka Shonibare MBE is one of a few people of African descent to be decorated as a ‘Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire’, which he officially attaches to his name – a decision which writer Jeffrey Kastner describes as ‘a wry acknowledgement of his own state of perpetual betweenness’.
Shonibare was born in London in 1962 and moved to Lagos, Nigeria at age three. He returned to London to study Fine Art at Byam Shaw School of Art (now Central Saint Martins College) and at Goldsmiths College, where he received his MFA. In 2004 he was nominated for the Turner Prize.
Over the past decade, Shonibare has become known for his exploration of colonialism and post-colonialism within the contemporary context of globalisation. Working in painting, sculpture, photography, film and installation, his work examines race, class and the construction of cultural identity through sharp political commentary of the tangled interrelationship between Africa and Europe and their respective economic and political histories.
‘What I do is create a kind of mongrel,’ says Shonibare. ‘In reality, most people’s cultures have evolved out of this mongrelisation, but people don’t acknowledge that.’
Part one of the exhibition presents ruined historical symbols of Roman and British Empires embellished in Dutch wax Indonesian Batik / ‘African’ textiles. Shonibare transforms the classical white marble body into colourful sculptures – the decoration of power in the wrong colours.
Part two of Ruins Decorated juxtaposes Addio Del Passato (2011), a film about a colonial hero’s betrayal of his wife and his eventual decline, alongside a series of photographs in which Admiral Nelson’s death is reimagined through the depiction of death in historical paintings. Nelson’s demise is re-enacted and his image (donning a uniform made out of ‘African’ textiles) is transformed through its decoration.
Part three – the sculpture Post-Colonial Globe Man – presents a man wearing Victorian clothes made out of another variation of ‘African’ pattern, balancing precariously on a large globe. The globe shows a map of the British Empire before the first world war. The man’s head is replaced with another globe, depicting a post-colonial map of the world as it looks today.
He uses the globes for heads because, he says, ‘throughout history, cultures have influenced each other. The Romans got from the Greeks and so on.’
The fabrics I use are a signifier of the identity of people from Africa and the African diaspora, but more importantly, how they encounter Europe
Part four, The African Library, considers the contributions of people like Kwame Nkrumah and Nelson Mandela to African independence struggles following the second world war. For this installation, 5 000 books have been covered in ‘African’ textiles and bear the names of post-independence African presidents and famous Africans in literature, science, music, art, engineering and theatre as well as pro-African Europeans. The African Library is to be presented in this iteration for the first time.
Ruins Decorated is Shonibare’s first solo exhibition with Goodman Gallery. While the exhibition marks a rare moment of visibility for the artist on the African continent, it also forms part of an increasing momentum to engage with Shonibare’s practice in South Africa, following Addio Del Passato on Zeitz MOCAA’s inaugural exhibition in 2017 and soon to be followed by the Norval Foundation’s exhibition of Wind Sculpture (SG) III in February 2019.
Shonibare’s swirling, brightly printed Wind Sculptures are also installed outside the Smithsonian Museum of African Art in Washington D.C., and in Central Park, New York City. Wind Sculpture (SG) I replaced the 19th-century statue of gynaecologist James Marion Sims – who conducted unanaesthetised experiments on enslaved women – in Central Park earlier this year. And the contrast couldn’t be bigger. ‘My piece is about the different backgrounds of people coming together,’ says Shonibare.
In addition to Ruins Decorated at the Goodman Gallery, he will be participating in the FNB JoburgArtFair on their talks programme and his artwork Planets in My Head, Music II will be shown on the Goodman Gallery’s stand, Shonibare will have a solo show in South Korea, be participating in group shows from the US to the UK, and will be heavily involved, as usual, in the Royal Academy’s summer programme. He is also busy building an artist residence space in Lagos, Nigeria, from scratch. ‘It’s an exciting project where international artists will be able to go and do residencies. So that’s really occupying my mind at the moment. We’re building a gallery and rooms for artists to use.’ In all of this, Shonibare continues the approach that has made him an exceptional, stand-out artist: opening international dialogues, exploring and exposing cultures to one another, and interrogating how we see this exchange.
Can a historically dominant culture ever empathise with another culture? Can the hybridisation of icons of power be the solution to breaking down binaries required by dictatorship and prejudice? To read more about Yinka Shonibare’s Ruins Decorated, look out for our September 2018 issue of Creative Feel or to continue supporting our role in the arts and culture industry, subscribe to our monthly magazine for exclusive content.