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Issue 240

Yinka Shonibare Invites A Community of Artists to London

A group show at Stephen Friedman Gallery’s new spaces celebrates animalism, originality and freedom

BY Chloë Ashby in Exhibition Reviews | 23 OCT 23

The mood at Stephen Friedman Gallery’s new location on Cork Street is one of celebration. Walking along the pavement from Burlington Gardens, the first thing I see is a masked figure tottering on wooden stilts, torso twisted towards the window, head tossed back, arms in the air. I notice a curly tail and hooved feet, which, like the rest of the body, have been painted in a Dutch wax batik pattern – the vibrant fabric that has become Yinka Shonibare’s trademark. I tear myself away and pass through the entrance, suddenly feeling that I’m late to the party.

And what a party! That figure – Hybrid Sculpture (Faun on Stilts) (all works 2023) – is one of a dozen new works by the British-Nigerian artist, who has been with the gallery since 1996. The first two rooms are filled with Shonibare’s colourful sculptures, masks and quilts, while the third contains a group presentation by artists mostly from Nigeria, Zimbabwe and the diaspora, whom he has either worked with, mentored or simply admires. The show takes inspiration from the spirit of dada – that brilliantly subversive movement born in Zurich during World War I – and its bizarre and dreamlike manifestations, which, the exhibition text tells us, evoked ‘African and Oceanic cultures to express animalism, originality and freedom’. And, as always with Shonibare, the results are at once playful, exuberant and provocative.

Yinka Shonibare CBE RA, 'Hybrid Sculpture (Faun on Stilts)', 2023
Yinka Shonibare CBE RA, Hybrid Sculpture (Faun on Stilts), 2023. Courtesy: the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery; photograph: Stephen White & Co.

But back to the party people. I almost bump into two of them – Sun Dance Kids (Boy and Girl) – dressed top to toe in clothes fashioned from the same bold batik print, all blooming flowers and swirling leaves, with sun-like masks for faces, holding hands as they move to music only they can hear. Also bending towards the window is Shonibare’s Wind Sculpture in Bronze (SG) I, a dazzling contorted bronze sheet. From certain angles, it resembles a sail blowing in the breeze – a nod to the trade winds that nudged Dutch wax from Indonesia to the Netherlands to West Africa; from others, it could be a fourth dancer, shimmying, sliding.

Yinka Shonibare CBE RA, 'Sun Dance Kids (Boy and Girl)', 2023.
Yinka Shonibare CBE RA, Sun Dance Kids (Boy and Girl), 2023. Courtesy: the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery; photograph: Stephen White & Co.

This first room is presided over by endangered African birds, which appear alongside threaded masks on lively patchwork quilts. Continue into the second space, and you’ll find half a dozen birds in three-dimensional form escaping from wood-and-metal cages piled high on the back of a horse. Based on The Countess of Coningsby in the Costume of the Charlton Hunt (c.1760) by George Stubbs, the life-size sculpture Feeling Free Like a Bird comprises a woman riding side-saddle, as tradition dictated during the 18th century. But the implied forward movement of the horse, with its hind leg raised, together with the birds, perched on top of their former prisons, hints at her own bid to break away from a life of rules and restrictions.

Yinka Shonibare CBE RA, 'Wind Sculpture in Bronze (SG) I', 2023.
Yinka Shonibare CBE RA, Wind Sculpture in Bronze (SG) I, 2023. Courtesy: the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery; photograph: Stephen White & Co.

It’s surely no coincidence that this sculpture has been positioned so as to appear to be riding towards the third room, where works by nine emerging and established artists are on display. While the overall palette here is more subdued, the motifs echo Shonibare’s own: in Victor Ehikhamenor’s The Arranged Marriage of King Oedipus, for instance, faces emerge mask-like around the central figures, while the equestrian theme is carried over into Okiki Akinfe’s The Road to Damascus. Some of the artists have participated in Shonibare’s residency programme in Lagos, including Emma Prempeh, whose A Haunting Fragility shows a woman slumped on a sofa with a wonderfully alert cat at her feet. Painted on a black background, the work is finished with dashes of imitation gold leaf that glints in the light and gradually oxidises, creating a beautiful and animated canvas that, like much of this special exhibition, celebrates change and the shifting layers of time.

Yinka Shonibare, ‘Free The Wind, The Spirit, and The Sun’, is on view at Stephen Friedman Gallery, London until 11 November

Main image: Yinka Shonibare CBE RA, Hybrid Mask (Tsekedi), 2023. Courtesy: the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery; photograph: Stephen White & Co.

Chloë Ashby is an author and arts critic who has written for publications such as The Times, TLS, Guardian, Spectator and frieze. Her debut novel, Wet Paint, was published in April 2022, and her second novel, Second Self, is due in July 2023.