BY Jan Kedves in Reviews | 13 MAY 14
Featured in
Issue 15

Yinka Shonibare MBE

Blain | Southern, Berlin & Herbert-Gerisch-Stiftung, Neumünster

BY Jan Kedves in Reviews | 13 MAY 14

Yinka Shonibare MBE, Adam and Eve (detail), 2013, Mannequins, wax cotton textiles, fibreglass, wire and steel baseplate, 2.9 × 2.3 × 1.2 m

Yinka Shonibare MBE likes his art theatrical. Shonibare, who was born in London in 1962 and grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, makes sculptures and installations that seem like scenes from historical and costume dramas. Dramas, that is, frozen in the moment, populated by figures who – even if they were made of flesh and blood, and not out of fibreglass – would nonetheless be immobile, because their heads have been neatly severed, as if by guillotines. That’s their point: anonymized, brainless and faceless, they represent players and victims of cultural and territorial conflicts and massacres. However, no sense of morbidity surrounds the figures, thanks in large part to their costumes, which have been tailored, usually in a Victorian style, out of waxprint, the brightly patterned cotton fabric that is associated – in the travel-brochure romanticism of the popular imagination – with an ‘authentic Africa’. This becomes evident in Impaled Aristocrat (2013), a male mannequin slumping forward with a sword in his chest; his frock coat bears a radiant pattern of yellow suns, and his trousers are printed with horses rearing against a meadow-green background. The sartorial contrast with death by impalement could hardly be greater.

Taking waxprint fabrics as found material, Shonibare uses them as the basis for doubly- and triply-coded arrangements bearing a wealth of references. There is already a great deal ‘going on’ in their motifs; the fabrics are politically highly charged. Waxprints are not in fact authentically African; they stem from Indonesia and only reached West Africa in the 19th century from England and Holland via colonial trade routes. The assumption that these clothes are traditionally ‘African’ is as much a product of Western colonialism as is their African presence altogether. So when Shonibare clothes biblical, historical and (post-)colonial subjects in these fabrics without regard to chronological plausibility, he is in a sense turning history inside out.

This spring and summer, Germany is seeing a veritable Shonibare festival: from February to April, Making Eden at Blain|Southern was the artist’s first gallery show in Berlin. This exhibition’s thematic panorama extended from the temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden to the 2011 London riots (where Shonibare has lived and worked since the late 1970s). The majority of the exhibited works – including the installation Adam and Eve (2013) as well as Impaled Aristocrat – then travelled to Neumünster, where they joined other works in Shonibare’s first comprehensive solo exhibition in Germany, Cannonball Paradise at the Herbert Gerisch Foundation. Beyond this, according to one of his press releases, in July Shonibare will – under the title Aliens in Parliament – orchestrate the landing of ‘three aliens in flying machines developed by Leonardo da Vinci in the 15th century’ at the exhibition hall of the Schleswig-Holstein regional parliament in Kiel. Here too, the sculptures will be static – immobile objects.

Along with the fibreglass mannequins, what is most striking in Neumünster is Bling Painting (2013), a large wall piece comprised of 21 round discs of various sizes. They are covered in waxprint fabric and painted with rubbery acrylics. Their edges are studded with miniature plastic versions of hand grenades, women’s stilettos, fighter planes, luxury cars and Chanel logos. As fetish objects, the discs reproduce in miniature the effect that Shonibare’s sculptures have on a larger scale – they pile political, fashion and art motifs atop one another to the point of vertigo. It would come as no surprise if at any moment they began to rotate like little carousels on the wall.

Yinka Shonibare MBA, Adam and Eve (detail), 2013, Mixed Media, 2.9 × 2.3 × 1.2m

All of this is quite fascinating. The problem is simply that Shonibare likes to explicate his works himself. Just as in his exhibitions in England, quotations from the artist were placed on the walls of the spaces in Neumünster. And so, in the room where the installation Adam and Eve stands, what chimes in from the side is ‘Adam and Eve is about the LONGING FOR A DUBIOUS PARADISE in connection with revolution.’ If what is compelling about Shonibare’s works is their commuted sense of overload, the feeling of being unable to keep a full over­view of all their political and cultural implications in the moment, why should this be simply explained away by a catchy one-liner?

Shonibare is somewhat analogous to a director who stops his cast in the middle of a scene to address the audience with an explanation. In media like film or theatre, such didactic interventions may be motivated by concerns that the key moment might pass too quickly. But in a museum, where viewers can reflect on the works for as long as they wish, it borders on sabotage.

Translated by Jane Yager

Jan Kedves is a writer, editor and author of Talking Fashion. From Nick Knight to Raf Simons in Their Own Words (Prestel, 2013). He is based in Berlin.