Yinka Shonibare has long nurtured an ambiguous relationship with the Establishment, past and present. But the artist, a prominent post-colonialist voice in Britain – who was born in London to a Nigerian family and grew up in Lagos – cherishes his recently awarded order of chivalry as Member of the British Empire with a pride that isn’t entirely ironic. Shonibare is a self-proclaimed dandy, an “insider and outsider,” and the 18th century, cradle of that empire, is a constant point of reference both for its political overtones and dazzling aesthetic. It thus seems particularly apposite that the artist should be having his largest U.K. show to date on the grounds of a former 18th-century aristocratic parkland, Bretton Hall, which has been occupied by the Yorkshire Sculpture Park since 1977.
Entitled “FABRIC-ATION,” the exhibition, which opens to the public on Saturday (through September 1), is unsurprisingly full to the brim with the “African” cloth that has been the artist’s trademark for almost two decades. First manufactured by the Dutch using Indonesian patterns, the material is still printed in Europe, and consumed mainly in West Africa. “It’s a very strong signifier of trade routes, of histories, of geographies — all wrapped up in this one material,” said YSP’s director of Programme Clare Lilley at yesterday’s opening. And here it is everywhere, tailored in the historicist costumes that dress up Shonibare’s mannequins (compressing in one sculpture both colonizers and colonized, and more generally oppressors and oppressed); pin-tacked to paintings; even acting as the skin of a cute alien family – a not-so-subtle marker of Shonibare’s investigation of “Otherness.”
The adoption of a motif so conveniently combining bright patterns and politics has been a blessing and a curse for the artist. Although it provided him with a “brand,” its repetitive use has led to a flattening out of his production, and accusations of one-trick-ponyism. The YSP survey demonstrates a real attempt to single out the different threads in Shonibare’s practice. Looking at this dense presentation, it becomes clear that the fabric serves an array of distinct topics, of which post-colonialism and hybrid identity are only two of the most central. The omnipresence of conflicts, the threat of global warming, and food-sustainability are key concerns for Shonibare. “He’s dealing with very hefty subjects but with an amazing lightness of touch, and always with a sense of exuberance and beauty,” said Lilley. This “exuberance and beauty” owes much to the flamboyant cloth.
When I met Shonibare back in 2009, he told me about what he calls his “Trojan Horse approach”: the use of a seductive lexicon to sugar the pill of his criticism. “When people see an artist of African origin,” he is quoted saying in the YSP’s exhibition guide, “they think: oh, he is here to protest. Yes, okay, I am here to protest, but I’m going to do it like a gentleman. It is going to look very nice. You are going to invite me to your museums because the work is nice, and then when I am inside it, it is too late.” Perhaps the most unsettling overtly political series of pieces in the show is the group of “Revolution Kids” (2012): three child-sized mannequins, two with a taxidermied fox head, one with a calf's head. They wear 18th-century style costumes in Shonibare’s signature batik, and hold Blackberry telephones and replicas of Colonel Gaddafi’s gold-plated handgun. The London riots and their fashion-conscious mobs of disillusioned youths perfectly coordinated via BlackBerry Messenger come to mind, and so does Arab Spring. The group tackles recent dissent in the same way Time Magazine chose “The Protester” as “person of the year” in 2011. In both cases, though, the amalgam between mostly unrelated upheavals feels forced and uncomfortable. Picking one fight per sculpture would have greatly benefited the clarity of the message – if broadcasting such a message were ever the artist’s intention.
But no matter how idea-led, there’s always an obvious enjoyment of the material, of the colors, textures, or the craft of well-tailored garments in Shonibare’s production. “I may be interested in a number of issues, but primarily I am an artist, and my job is to take people elsewhere,” the artist has said. “My job is to create a wonderland for them.” The “Revolution Kids” are fairytale characters, celebrating the imaginative power of childhood and its subversive potential, showing that Shonibare is increasingly embracing his formalist tendencies. The exhibition’s two new outdoor sculptures (co-commissioned by YSP and Stephen Friedman Gallery) are a case in point. Lilley described these oversized, fiberglass replicas of batik squares (“Wind Sculptures I and II,” 2013) as a “new departure” for the artist. Their bright, convoluted forms, dramatically contrasting with the gray Yorkshire sky, suggest sails or flags flapping in the breeze. Among Shonibare’s most resolutely abstract pieces so far, they proudly announce that his enduring love affair with batik has just taken yet another new turn.