by Hedieh Ilchi
Beware! YINKA SHONIBARE MBE is a spectacular ensemble that tantalizes one’s eyes to the point of unconsciousness. I would recommend that you protect yourselves from the infamous aesthetic fever that is permeating the gallery space. Initially, organized and toured by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, this exhibition showcases at its final destination, Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, a mid-career survey of the 47 year old British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, which includes paintings, sculptural installations, photography, and video. The two levels of the museum seem to have been seized by the headless mannequins dressed in Victorian garb African style. The exhibit begins from the upper level and somehow manages to become a labyrinth before I finally find my way to the sublevel area to take in the rest of the survey. There have been efforts to unify the split-level show visually by displaying objects that reach up to the overlook area; however, the unification acts only as an enigmatic mirage for me.
Amongst the works on display, there are two wall installation/painting pieces Double Dutch, 1994, and Black Gold, 2006 that stand separate in relation to the rest of the work presented due to their decorative flatness and the absence of the human figure. My initial reaction to these pieces was questioning their formal and conceptual relevance to the rest of Shonibare’s body of work. The only common denominator between these paintings and the rest of the show is the use of the African printed cloth known as the Dutch Wax fabric that is Shonibare’s infamous signature material. In Double Dutch, 50 small rectangular canvases wrapped in Duch Wax fabric are overlaid with impasto layers of paint, displayed in 5 rows on one solid Barbie pink background. Through the repetition and the gridded arrangement of this piece, Shonibare toys with the Minimalist notions of repetition and via the use of fragments, he deconstructs and recontexualizes the Greenbergian Formalism of the heroic white male oriented AbEx painting. And, if you are concerned about his reasoning behind the Barbie pink background, let me assure you of its importance, my friends! The Barbie Pink ‘demasculinises’ the notion of the Greenbergian Modernism and steps into the world of the Postmodern. The idea of female as the ‘other’, enables Shonibare to bridge postmodernism and postcolonialism through their shared conception of ‘otherness’ in identity politics. But at last, it seems that the aura of the Modernist meta-narrative is fractured; or is it really, I wonder? To me, this whole idea is absolutely arduous to fathom. I believe that Shonibare’s attempt at fragmentation of the heroic painting, cancels itself when the fragmented canvases are de-fragmented by their placement on a monumental solid backdrop. As a result the concept of the monumental is reinforced back into this painting.
Double Dutch is as grandiose as it can be and that is not just because it takes up an entire wall at the gallery space, but because it is one of the first pieces by Shonibare that challenges the notions of Authenticity. Walking around the gallery, I start to make connections between Shonibare’s ever repeated usages of the African Fabric in relation to the historical Victorian elements. It seems as if he is creating hybrids that are by-products of the colonialism of Africa and how that forms the post-colonial cultural identity that he is a part of. The idea of hybridization even oozes from the man’s title: “Yinka shonibare MBE” Member of the Order of the British Empire which he was honored due to his services to the arts in 2005. His acceptance of the title is of course a witty and political gesture that opens up his artistic ground even further by locating him both inside and outside of a bureaucratic system. So, surprisingly enough, I discover that the African print fabric that is a stereotypical sign of exotic Africanness, is not African at all. It seems to be nothing but a colonial construction. During the 19th century, produced in England and the Netherlands, the Dutch Wax fabric was inspired by Indonesian batiks and targeted towards the potential consumers in Africa. So, that is how the Guy Deboardian African “spectacle” is born. Therefore, the signified doesn’t truly reciprocate to the signifier and as a result a mythical pseudo-authentic Africanness is created. What Shonibare implies through his work is “what you see isn’t what you get.”
However, I would like to argue that in the post-colonial hybridized era, the idea of an authentic can be reconstructed and re-presented in terms of a hybrid authentic, which is a willing adoption and appropriation by the colonized. After all, what is still purely authentic in this 21th century cyber world of ours? The Dutch Wax might have originated outside of Africa, but its applied use and its meshing with the local construct of the culture gives it meaning. In a Wittgensteinian sense “meaning is just use” and it is the function of the Fabric that shapes its true meaning and authenticates it.
Shonibare in his work deals with the idea of excess and theatricality. At the beginning of my gallery visit, overflowing aw and exuberance took me over due to the vibrancy, meticulousness, and frivolity of the work presented. However, as I reach the sublevel gallery to take in the rest of the exhibit, I find myself overwhelmed and at times numbly desensitized towards the work. In other words, the exaggerated and redundant use of the fabric seems fetishistic and conjures artifice. I am aware that Shonibare, uses this visual aesthetic as a tactic to seduce the spectator before revealing his critique of the hypocritical world we live in; however, I find a sense of hypocrisy in Shonibare’s means of critique. He portrays the notion of wealth and power and the idea of Victorian leisure to shed light on the unfortunate, less privileged and servile providers of the colonized Africa. However, Shonibare’s own method of production seems to be patronizing if you will. After all, putting his physical disability aside, he employs teams of photographers, actors, seamstresses, and more to bring his ideas into actuality. And, entertain me, I beg of you: who plays the Victorian, and who plays the less privileged in this scenario?
My head is rampaged with the paradox of love and hate, trust and distrust that I unknowingly find myself sitting in front of the screening video Odile and Odette, an approximately 14 minute digital capture created in 2005. This piece is inspired by Tchaikovsky’s celebrated ballet, Swan Lake, in which one dancer performs the roles of the heroine, Odette dressed in white, and her adversary, Odile while wearing black. In Shonibare’s inspiration, there are instead two ballerina’s one black and one white, dressed in the Dutch Wax fabric, performing with synchronized movements on the two sides of a gilded frame. They dance as if one is a mere reflection of the other in the mirror; however, the idea of reflection becomes abstract as they seamlessly switch places throughout the performance. I find myself drawn to the contemplative elegance and the lack of pretentiousness in this piece. For once, I am in a direct conversation with the artwork, void of discombobulating excessiveness of Shonibare’s tendency. Shonibare, in a more honest way, provides a manner of questioning the hypotheses of our society. The idea of good versus bad is played parallel to the notions of whiteness and blackness. The constant switching roles of the ballerina’s as reflected and reflection attempts to tenderly poke the eyes of our stereotypicality. The success of this piece is part due to the curatorial decision to visually present it in relation with the rest of Shonibare’s work, as opposed to isolating it in a darkroom, typical of screened videos. This enables to locate Shonibare’s work conceptually and formally in relation to postmodernism’s idea of hybridity.
Shonibare’s vast body of work draws on crucial issues such as imperialism, post-colonialism, globalism, and cultural identity and seem to act parallel to such aesthetic issues as excess and beauty. However, the crux of his work is its paradoxical nature that permits for fluctuating dialectics rather than congealment of ideas. It is this openness that draws me to shonibare’s work and enables me to wonder and question the works many layers.