Scramble for Africa (2003) Fourteen life-size mannequins, fourteen chairs, table, Dutch wax printed cotton textile. 132 x 488 x 280 cm Courtesy the artist and the Collection of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. From the National Festival of Arts and Culture (NAFEST) in Port Harcourt, which ended yesterday, to Life in My City Arts Festival (LIMCAF), currently going on in Enugu, ANA Convention to Ake Book and Arts Festival, it’s been a season of arts and culture celebration in the country. In the last two months, one art event or the other has held, making Nigeria a culture destination for events planners. From November 2 to 4, 2018, ART X Lagos, West Africa’s premier international art fair, will be the focus. Holding at the Civic Centre in Victoria Island, Lagos, the fair will play host to some of Africa’s most sought-after established and emerging artists, as well as leading galleries. The keynoter this year is internationally renowned artist, Yinka Shonibare (MBE). In this interview with GREGORY AUSTIN NWAKUNOR (Arts and Culture Editor), Shonibare speaks on a lot of issues, including his career highlights.
Never mind that he adds British-Nigerian artist to his name; Yinka Shonibare is every inch a Nigerian. He equally enjoys discussing the thriving African art. The artist, who is excited about his homecoming this week, will give the keynote at this year’s ART X Lagos.“I feel honoured to be considered for this, it is very exciting. I’m looking forward to it,” he says. “I will be talking about my work, my curating, my London experimental space for emerging artists and my plans for Lagos.”
For the artist, who is making waves, because of his experimentation with form, “there is a lot of interest in African art in the west at the moment.”Shonibare, a master of technical and visual versatility, is respected for his embrace of richly patterned Dutch wax textiles, which are applied to the surface of canvases and three-dimensional landscapes.
Since 1994, this brightly coloured ‘African’ fabric (Dutch wax-printed cotton), which he buys himself from Brixton market in London, has been one of his most used media of communication, especially for his installation art. Though, the fabrics are actually not authentically African the way people think, it has deconstructed his perception of culture. To him, “it’s an artificial construct.”
His words: “I started using Dutch wax in my art as a way of expressing the dual identity of a modern African like myself, to understand that the identity of a post-colonial African has been touched by Africa’s contact with the rest of the world.” Working across painting, sculpture, photography, film and installation, Shonibare’s work examines race, class and the construction of cultural identity within the contemporary context of globalisation.
“I explore a number of themes in my works, subjects can be as varied as colonialism, climate change, history, literature, philosophy, semiotics, science, Art history, eugenics, sexuality, materiality, public art, curating, social interventions and production,” he says.
While revealing that humour is central to these works, he says, “my work is often about power relations and the dark side of human relations, humour is sometimes the best way to deal with the absurdity of human behaviour.” Comparing ART X to his other shows, he says what he will be looking forward to at Art X Lagos is, “meeting other artists and also seeing works from across Africa in particular.”
He continues, “I feel it is important to be a part of ART X, because I will like to be part of the conversation about art in Nigeria.”For him, “the exhibition is more like a summary of the various ways in which I work, highlighting major projects through photographs and articles. In the future, I hope to make a more comprehensive exhibition in Nigeria.”
Though, creating such great and timeless pieces requires a lot of time, hardwork and energy, Shonibare believes the structure in his office provides opportunity for a flow of ideas.
“My studio in London operates like an architect’s office, I work with a large team of people. We start with a subject matter, and then, we do further research, then I create a proposal followed by a design meeting with fabricators. I also do a lot of designs for my woodcuts and screen prints. The team consists of costume makers, Quilt makers, engineers, administrative staff, sculptors, photographers, painters, print makers, solicitors and commercial galleries,” he says.
BORN August 9, 1962, when he was three years old, his family moved to Lagos, Nigeria, where his father practised law. At 17, he returned to Britain to do his A-levels at Redrice School. Shonibare contracted transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord, at the age of 18, which resulted in a long-term physical disability where one side of his body is paralysed.
This challenge, however, did not deter his quest for success. He went on to study Fine Art, first at the Byam Shaw School of Art (now Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design) and then at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he received his MFA, graduating as part of the Young British Artists generation. Following his studies, Shonibare worked as an arts development officer for Shape Arts, an organisation, which makes arts accessible to people with disabilities.
His first solo show was in 1989 at Byam Shaw Gallery, London. He has gone on to exhibit at the Venice Biennial and at leading museums worldwide. In fact, the Nigerian curator, art critic, writer, poet, and educator, Okwui Enwezor, commissioned him to create his most recognised work Gallantry and Criminal Conversation at the Documenta XI in 2002. That work launched him on an international stage.
Shonibare became an honorary fellow of Goldsmiths’ College in 2003, and was awarded an MBE in 2004, the year he also got nominated for the Turner Prize, which another British-Nigerian artist, Chris Ofili, had won in 1998. Ofili is best known for his paintings incorporating elephant dung.
That year, he was shortlisted for his Double Dutch exhibition at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam and for his solo show at the Stephen Friedman Gallery, London. Jeremy Deller’s video study of George Bush’s home state tonight won him the £25,000 Turner Prize in 2004.
Deller had been the bookmakers’ favourite to win the prize from the moment the shortlist was announced. However, of the four nominees, he seemed to be the most popular with the general public that year. A BBC website poll, resulted in 64 per cent of voters stating that his work was their favourite.
In September 2008, his major mid-career survey commenced at the MCA Sydney and toured to the Brooklyn Museum, New York in June 2009 and the Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC in October 2009. In 2010, Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle became his first public art commission on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square.
During 2008 to 2009, he was the subject of a major mid-career survey in both Australia and the USA; starting in September 2008 at the MCA Sydney and toured to the Brooklyn Museum, New York in June 2009 and the Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC in October 2009.
For the 2009 Brooklyn Museum show, he created a site-specific installation titled, Mother and Father Worked Hard So I Can Play, which was on view in several of the Museum’s period rooms. Another site-specific installation, Party Time — Re-Imagine America: A Centennial Commission was simultaneously on view at the Newark Museum in Newark, New Jersey, from July 1, 2009, to January 3, 2010, in the dining room of the museum’s 1885 Ballantine House.
He was to later to receive an honorary doctorate (Fine Artist) of the Royal College of Art in 2010. He was also elected Royal Academician by the Royal Academy of Arts in 2013. His works have formed part of prominent collections, including, the Tate Collection, London; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C; Museum of Modern Art, New York and others.
On December 3, 2016, one of Shonibare’s Wind Sculpture pieces was installed in front of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC. The painted fiberglass work, titled, ΩΩzI, is the first sculpture to be permanently installed outside of the NMAA’s entrance.