Stepping into Yinka Shonibare’s studio warehouse in east London, there is an immediate sense of calm. Almost like you should speak in hushed tones. In the large lower room, artists sketch, paint precise dots onto bright masks, layer paper, cut fabric – watched over by a handpainted, almost life-size, statue of a grumpy-looking Winston Churchill. Upstairs, more staff tap on computers, surrounded by piles of the colourfully printed Dutch wax fabric that has helped define Shonibare’s trademark style.
This is one of the busiest years of Shonibare’s career. A multimedia British-Nigerian artist who has been active since the 1990s, he is known for work that explores themes of identity, race and colonialism. It would take far too long to list all his accolades but, to name a few, he’s been exhibited around the world, was short-listed for the Turner Prize in 2004, had his work Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle shown on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square in 2010 and, in 2019, was awarded a CBE. At present, he’s preparing for numerous shows, including the Nigerian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, solo exhibitions at London’s Stephen Friedman Gallery and the Serpentine, and the two Deutsche Bank Wealth Management lounges at Frieze London and Frieze Masters.
‘It’s better not to rest on your laurels,’ he says. ‘You have to be proactive because it’s not good to be passive. You have to take initiative, start things and keep creative. You don’t want to bore yourself.’ He’s accepted the fact that, having excelled in his field, he’s effectively now ‘establishment’ – and proud of it. ‘I’m very happy to be successful,’ he says. ‘And I deliberately use the CBE after my name. Black people are the majority in the world. So why should we stay on the margins? We deserve the same amount of wealth and success.
Shonibare grew up in a strict Nigerian household in Lagos, with an attorney father and a stay-at-home mother. His parents weren’t initially supportive of his ambitions to become an artist. ‘There was an assumption that as an artist you couldn’t make a success of it,’ he says. His three siblings became a dentist, a surgeon and a banker. But, even though Shonibare took a risk and moved to London to study at art school aged 18, he was never a starving artist, taking office jobs until he could do art full time. He knew he’d changed his parents’ minds about his career after he overheard his father telling his friend on the phone that his son had been invited by the queen to Windsor Castle.
Today, recently returned from a holiday to Paris, he’s dressed simply, with his grey, loosely loc’d hair pushed back from his face. Even on his travels, he spends time thinking about the next big thing, the next idea, the next show. He won’t be drawn on specifics, but he does say that he has ten researchers currently working on one of his projects. What he is excited to talk about in detail is a new series called ‘African Bird Magic’, which will be on display at the Deutsche Bank Wealth Management lounges at Frieze London and Frieze Masters and on the Frieze Viewing Room.
Snatches of the work are dotted around his studio – Shonibare has hand-drawn images of endangered or vulnerable birds across the African continent and beyond, ranging from the long-beaked southern bald ibis (found in South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland), to the diminutive yellow-breasted bunting (once common across Eurasia but now critically threatened). Beyond the birds, the pieces also reference African artefacts of the kind that were in the collections of Western modernist artists such as Pablo Picasso. They are flourished with unnatural colour, adorned with symbolism, and are currently being turned into huge quilts that will hang in frames on the walls of the exhibit, alongside handpainted masks covered in textile patterns.
‘I started to really contemplate: what’s our relationship with nature, especially those of us who live in cities?’ he says. ‘We turn away from nature, but nature is incredibly beautiful. In the past, the whole question of spirituality and being connected to nature was considered by the West to be “primitive”. But we understand that there is actually no culture without nature. It’s a way to pay homage to all of that'.
In part based on his growing concern for the environment and ecology due to climate change, the series came out of time Shonibare spent on the farm at the Guest Artists Space Foundation he runs in Ijebu, a town a few hours outside of Lagos. The space was established in 2022 to facilitate international cultural exchange and develop creative and research practices. Artists, researchers, curators, designers, ecologists, economists and other practitioners from around the world can apply for residencies there. ‘I do think we have a responsibility not to pull the ladder up,’ he says. ‘I think it’s very important that we bring other people along with us.’ It’s part of his ethos, and why he always supports up-and-coming artists and creatives.
This is classic Shonibare: even if he is part of the establishment, his mind, he says, is preoccupied with how to deal with the ‘number of the injustices’ that can be found in the world. Not least the continued ignorance that people in the West have of Black Africans. ‘People have a lot of stereotypes in their heads about what Africa is like,’ he says. ‘What the people of Africa are like. They don’t know, because they don’t have the opportunity to go there. And it’s a very rich culture.’
Yinka Shonibare is taking us there – if not literally, then through his art and the message it sends.
Discover Yinka Shonibare’s exhibition in the Deutsche Bank Wealth Management lounges, plus expert insight and highlights from across the fairs, by streaming Art:LIVE here.
This article first appeared in Frieze Week, London 2023 under the headline 'Yinka Shonibare Finds Magic'
Main image: Yinka Shonibare CBE, African Bird Magic (Secretary Bird) I, 2023. Courtesy: © Yinka Shonibare CBE and Goodman Gallery, Cape Town, Johannesburg and London