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Issue 44 January-February 1999 RSS

Yinka Shonibare

Tablet Gallery, London, UK

Like most of Yinka Shonibare’s works, Alien Obsessives, Mum, Dad and the Kids (1998) is a playful exploration - or ridicule - of status, alienation and multi-culturalism, made through the contextual use of African batik fabric. This patterned material, which has often been used as a dubious symbol for ‘exoticness’ or ‘African-ness’, is in fact not indigenous to Africa at all. It originated in Indonesia, was imported to Holland and then, ironically, was reproduced by English designers working in factories in Manchester. The artist uses it as a metaphor for cultural confusion and previous works made from this fabric include Victorian dresses on mannequins - big arse bustles and all - and pictures made from the stretched textile on which the artist painted references to colour-field works.

For this show, Shonibare has made stuffed mannequins of two clichéd space-alien families, which, at about 4 feet high, look like oversized cartoon toys. Their large heads, naked bodies and strange eyes are predominantly green or yellow, according to the fabric from which they are made. Sci-fi films from the 50s and 60s play in the background, filled with their usual themes of dominance, invasion, infiltration and abduction by competing life forms.

The two families stand apart, literally alienated from each other, but with one child from each of the groups greeting the other. In the context of fraught, post-colonial identity politics in Africa, tribal genocide, the current high levels of black-on-black violence in London - or the everyday hazard of abduction by alien space travellers for bizarre sex experiments - this is an ambiguous greeting, implying both optimism and threat.

The siting of the Tablet Gallery in the Tabernacle, a vibrant centre for Notting Hill Gate’s black community and others, is relevant to Shonibare’s show. A gathering place in an area of great historical importance for black immigrants, Notting Hill provides a microcosm of the artist’s references: a racially mixed population, black nationalists, white ‘ethnic’ chic designers, racists, culture tourists, as well as those of a playful, dilettante persuasion. Its 60s tradition of freak culture is also sympathetic to the idea of space visitors.

As can be seen from his concurrent Institute of International Visual Arts poster project on the London Underground, Diary of a Victorian Dandy (1998), in which he is shown dressed as a Victorian aristocrat, Shonibare is amused by frivolously elegant subversion. Diary…, like Aliens…, reverses or displaces assumptions. The same approach informed the photograph The Queen from Benetton magazine (1993), in which Elizabeth ll was transformed into a black person.

Whereas Shonibare’s batik Victorian dresses are determined by a colonial past, the alien idea explores a future affected by speculation about the conquest of outer space. Whether these speculations are perceived as fearful or reassuring (or neither), is left up to us.

Paranoid apprehension would seem the preferred choice. As technology such as the Hubble Space Telescope increases our anticipation of greeting or being greeted by other life forms, it also encourages us to reflect on our complicity in those past or present exploitations that have resulted in our prosperity, and to consider the possibility that we could be similarly exploited. The abductions of the slave trade provide an experiential template for fears of our becoming some other life form’s intergalactic wog, coon or nigger, zoological specimen or fresh foodstuff.

Alien… is poised somewhere between persecution, trauma and jest. The aliens are toys with which we, as children, can role play, projecting and combining both our own and other’s received opinions of race, class and culture. As the aliens are neither black nor white, but are still identifiably similar to us, they are simultaneously the ‘me’ and the ‘not me’. Their cartoon quality is significant - the cartoon being a popular vehicle for intellectual equivalence in our collective political imagination and, in one sense, the aliens are latent cartoon golliwogs. The artist makes a virtue of existing confusions and uses humour defensively to distance and contain the uncontainable. We are playfully tipped into an aesthetic playpen, in an anarchic, non-judgmental counterpoint to the more familiar pronouncements on polyculturalism, racism and ethnicity.

Neal Brown

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First published in
Issue 44, January-February 1999

by Neal Brown

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