2009 Weave of the week #35: Yinka Shonibare, MBE, Fabricator of tales
September 14, 2009

"Leisure Lady (with Ocelots)" by Yinka Shonibare, 2001

"Leisure Lady (with Ocelots)" by Yinka Shonibare, 2001

Yinka Shonibare, MBE, is a contemporary British-Nigerian artist, and a visit to his solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum derailed my plan to write about a traditional Nigerian (!) textile this week.  I enjoyed the show so much that I wanted to write about it before it closed next Sunday, Sept. 20.

Mr. Shonibare was named a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2005, and is (unlike many of the people I write about) so fabulously successful and internationally famous that I’m going to skip the basic biographical information, which is available on Wikipedia and on the artist’s website, and go right to a random sampling of my impressions from the show.

The multi-media exhibition comprises sculpture, paintings, photography, and film, and “African print” fabrics, like the ones shown throughout this article, are at the heart of almost all his work.  If Liza Lou’s goal is to bead the world, Yinka Shonibare’s may be to cover it in Dutch wax-print fabrics.  This photo from the show suggests what that might look like:


And below is a close-up of the wall covering. This print of black soccer players is the only one in the show that was designed by the artist.


The textiles that we call “African prints,” or Dutch wax prints, were inspired by Indonesian batiks, and are manufactured in the Netherlands and Africa and sold throughout Africa, where they have been completely embraced.  To see what the fabrics look like as African garments, look up, for example, Mandabi, a 1968 film directed by Ousmane Sembène of Senegal (it’s available on Netflix).  My husband saw Mandabi years ago, and all that he remembers about it is how knocked out he was by the fabrics.

A selection of Dutch wax prints was presented in a showcase in the exhibition, and the photo below shows a portion of that selection.

Dutch wax

Yinka Shonibare’s artwork is concerned with questions of identity, authenticity, colonialism, imperialism, class, art history, the Victorian Era, and fashion; but don’t get the wrong impression — his work is also colorful, accessible, inventive, and a lot of fun.

Headless mannequins are one of Mr. Shonibare’s trademarks, an idea he connects to “the French Revolution when the aristocracy had their heads chopped off” (see an excellent short videotaped interview with the artist here).  The headlessness also helps us focus on the fabrics, the costumes, and the gestures, without distractions.


I thought the similarity between the artist’s Two Heads at Once, shown above, and Nicolas Ghesquière’s “batik” dresses from Balenciaga’s 2010 Resort collection, shown below, was astonishing.  Let’s be charitable and call this an example of art influencing fashion.  (Inspired by Mr. Shonibare, I personally decapitated the models shown below.)

Balenciaga resort 2010aBalenciaga resort 2010b

There is a video in the exhibition in which Mr. Shonibare discusses his interest in fashion.  Also a thirty-minute color video, A Masked Ball, in which I noticed the interlocked “C” Chanel logo on one of the ball gowns.

The sight of a roomful of dancers whirling around in 18th-century-style formalwear (made out of a riot of color wax prints, of course), powdered wigs (not headless), and Venetian-style masks is fantastic.

But with all this eye candy to talk about,  I still haven’t mentioned the most unusual part of the exhibition, Mother and Father Worked Hard So I Can Play,  a site-specific installation in several of the Brooklyn Museum’s 18th and 19th century rooms. Child-size mannequins, headless, and at play (in Victorian costumes made from Dutch wax fabrics), have been placed in the museum’s various period rooms for us to find.  The picture below shows a girl and her doll under the table in an 1806 South Carolina dining room.

dining room

This is my favorite part of the exhibition, because the museum’s period rooms were peaceful havens for me when I was a child, and I hadn’t visited them in years.  They are a fascinating and probably underappreciated part of the Brooklyn Museum’s permanent collection, so I hope that this “treasure hunt” introduces them to new visitors.

Running concurrently with the Brooklyn Museum show is another of Yinka Shonibare’s  site-specific installations, Party Time: Re-imagine America,  in the Newark Museum’s 1885 Ballantine House.

Mr. Shonibare says, “To be a good artist, you have to know how to fabricate [nice pun, if that’s a pun], how to weave tales, how to tell lies, because you’re taking your audience to a nonexistent space and telling them that it does exist.”

Well he is (good, that is),  he does (take you there),  and I enjoyed the trip.