Yinka Shonibare MBE in conversation with Professor Paul Gilroy

Wind Sculpture (SG) I stands 23 feet tall at the southeast entrance to New York’s Central Park. Created from fiberglass and painted in rich gold, turquoise and terracotta patterns reminiscent of Dutch wax batik prints, Yinka Shonibare MBE’s monumental sculpture captures the gentle undulating motion of wind. Conjuring up images of fluttering sails gliding over endless seas, the deep folds and multiple twists capture the complexity of movement, migration and multilayered identities.

British-Nigerian Shonibare was born in London and moved to Lagos as a child where his father practiced law. Reminiscing about this period of his life at the Pitzhanger Lecture hosted by Christie’s recently, he attributes the birth of his interest in art to Lagos’s traffic jams. Shonibare would stay in his art class while waiting for his lift home and there he discovered art as a channel of his teenage rebellion against his traditional ‘Victorian father’.

Shonibare has worked with a range of media including painting, photography, sculpture, video, installation, film and performance. Despite his movement through media and across time, the vibrant Dutch wax prints remain a signature of his work. The colourfully patterned cloth ever present on the streets of Africa, from Abuja to Harare to Kinshasa, is Shonibare’s entry point into the complexities of cultural authenticity and identity in a globalised world.

Often mistaken as ‘indigenous’, the fabrics borrowed their patterns from Indonesian textiles, were mass-produced by the Dutch and sold to their West African colonies. Today they are manufactured in the Netherlands, China and Africa, worn throughout large parts of the last and form British designer Stella McCartney’s problematic Spring 2018 collection. Shonibare’s work suggests the folly of simplistic approaches to identity when cultures continually shift and Europe and Africa remain intertwined through the relationship that was cemented by colonialism. He counters erasure and appropriation by acknowledging and honoring the visual cultures, places and ages he borrows from.

Shonibare’s subtle celebration of cultures and ideas transcending borders confronts the hostile reception of the people that he describes as ‘still breathing precious wind into the sails of the United Kingdom’. This tension was encapsulated in Nelson’s Ship In A Bottle, a public sculpture commissioned for Trafalgar Square in 2010. Glancing back to the beginning of the 19th Century, Britain was largely excluded from European markets and hoped to expand its trade and influence. The success of Lord Nelson’s HMS Victory, which had recruited foreigners to make up 30% of its crew, increased Britain’s control of the seas, contact with distant countries and arrival of new
communities to our shores.

While the current narratives around migration are far from positive and there is a persistent refusal to acknowledge the voluntary, and non-voluntary, role foreign nations have played in Britain’s prosperity, the wind sculptures joyfully engage with the inevitability of human movement. Evoking the flexibility of a sail organically moulding itself to the wind, Shonibare’s work interrorages our reluctance to adapt to the movement of humans triggered by our collective actions, whether they be conflict, human trafficking, man-made disasters or climate change.

Public sculpture has always been key in commemorating history and heritage. Shonibare makes playful references to controversial past events, weaving a poetic discourse that can be read on many levels, from confrontational to whimsical to ironic. Redressing the imbalance of narratives around our collective past and present become an activity for all to take part in.

Chiedza Mhondoro is part of Museum Detox and works at Counterpoints, the UK’s leading arts organisation with the aim of using an arts led approach to the issues surrounding forced displacement and social transformation. This article also appears on their website.
This lecture was the 2018 Pitzhanger Lecture at Christie’s in London, 20 March 2018

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