Yinka Shonibare’s art cannot be overlooked because it is colorful, highly political, triumphant – and recognizable as if he had covered his work with a logo. The London-born artist of Nigerian origin has been working with wax print fabrics for several decades. He uses the so authentically African-looking colorful patterns to tailor knee breeches and frilly women’s skirts, covering books and sculptures with them – and that’s what one expects from one Exhibition in the Salzburg Museum Mönchsberg perhaps not much more in development than that the art star can append the proud title “Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire” to his signature.
The exhibition, subtitled “End of Empire”, is an unexpectedly illuminating experience. Not because the importance of this artist would have to be rebalanced in the context of art, where he has long been a role model for the currently highly traded generation with a migration background. No. It is more as if Yinka Shonibare has now moved into everyday life, as if a long-overlooked influence on fashion, film and, also, television series is revealed.
The fact that a “post-colonial hybrid”, as he calls himself, is shaping the style of the present should not come as a surprise. Born in 1962, Yinka Shonibare grew up in Nigeria as the son of an Anglophile, very conservative lawyer. It was read in the Shonibare family Time Magazine and National Geographic and felt that he belonged to the Commonwealth as a matter of course – without feeling in the least discriminated against. “I didn’t even know what ‘black’ was,” says the artist. “There were no such ethnic distinctions in Nigeria.”
The waxprint fabrics that made him famous were discovered by Shonibare at the Brixton street market in London
When Yinka Shonibare enrolled at the art academy in London in the 1980s, he was surprised that his professors asked him to study his “African origins” instead of the post-structuralists – the student worked his way through Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. Because there were only a few black role models like the US artist David Hammons, the student orientated himself towards feminists like Barbara Kruger, Nancy Spero and Judy Chicago. It wasn’t the Ethnographic Museum of Mankind in which he found the answer to the question “how to make non-Western contemporary art”. But the street market in Brixton, at whose stands he discovered these fabrics, wax prints that may appear authentically African, but are mainly made for export in the Netherlands, Indonesia or China. Shonibare initially presented the patterns in showcases like impaled insects.
Soon he turned his perspective around: the fabrics seemed to take over the colonial history of Great Britain almost independently. Shonibare’s sculptures only looked like mannequins at first glance, whose Victorian robes and tails had turned African. At second glance, you notice that they all look decapitated – which turns the masquerade ball into a massacre. Shonibare, whose generation of Young British Artists also received a lot of public attention, not only clad the spines of entire libraries, but also historical figures. Whether a dying Marat or an antique discus thrower – they all wear slim, colorfully printed suits. “I think, just as Picasso was allowed to appropriate African culture, I have the right to ethnicize and appropriate things from the Victorian era.”
In the photo series “Diary of a Victorian Dandy” (1998) he himself took on the poses of a London bachelor with cosmopolitan elegance, who moves carelessly in the narrow circles of the elite, but also finds time for the club and relaxation in the noble brothel . The picture story, based on Oscar Wilde or the morities of William Hogarth, develops in the fine thread, not simply marking the gaps in the story, but filling them in.
It was then the appearance at the eleventh documenta in Kassel, curated by Okwui Enwezor, that made Shonibare an international star, who is of course invited to fill the empty fourth plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square – the heart of the British Empire – with art . “Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle” (2010) was not a memorial, but a huge ship in a bottle into which the artist took the Victory of the national hero, including flared sails made of – of course – wax print fabrics. The heroic story alluded to here has more than one perspective. The giant bottle was finally allowed to move to the National Maritime Museum, while the artist received the accolade of “Member” of the “Order of the British Empire”. He added the abbreviation “MBE” to his name as well as the current “CBE”, since he has been “Commander” for some time.
Yinka Shonibare’s double-edged enthusiasm for the ghosts of a colonial past, but also the splendor of the historically long outdated system, for British orders and Victorian borders, for frigates and debating clubs, has now become the blueprint for all the appropriations and flaws in the Popular arts: Both the fashion of Junya Watanabe, who used wax print for business suits, as well as a film like “The Favorite” benefit from the border crossings of this art. You can now sample historical costumes, punk aesthetics and queen drama. And, as the cult series “Bridgestone” shows, black people appear as the British nobility. They are all heirs to the unabashed, self-confident, and also quite frivolous art of the great Yinka Shonibare CBE, who hopefully draws the three letters that the Empire gave him when signing with wax-print colored ink.
Yinka Shonibare CBE. End of Empire. In the Salzburg Museum MMK Mönchsberg until October 3rd. The catalog costs 36 euros.