Yinka Shonibare is a British artist of Nigerian descent. A Royal Academician, he spent his youth in his country of origin before returning to the United Kingdom. The multi-faceted nature of his cultural roots led him to use his art as a tool to inspect the enduring impact of Europe’s colonial past on the way we perceive personal identity and the notion of “the other”. Shonibare’s creations encompass installation art, sculpture, and weaving. In this post, I am going to focus on the use of fabric in his works, showing how this medium may represent the interactions and exchanges between people across space and history.
The first time I saw a work by Shonibare was at the Royal Academy’s 2018 Summer Exhibition. It was a mannequin holding a pile of books about to tip over. The sense of vibrancy conveyed by the dynamic pose also reverberated throughout the character’s garish garments. Such colourful prints are indeed a staple of Shonibare’s oeuvre and play a key role in his representation of cultural exchanges, which he personally experienced by living across multiple countries and continents.
Shonibare’s distinctive fabrics are made following the Indonesian batik dyeing technique, which uses wax to create bright patterns (more info here). During the colonial rule of South-East Asia, the Dutch imported these colourful cloths into Europe and their African dominions. Decades later, batik-style garments are still being made in some of those regions, including Nigeria, where they have become part of the local fashion. In this process of cultural translation, the fabric becomes a physical document of the colonial power dynamics engendered by European imperialism. At the same time, it shows the fluid nature of material culture and the identity narratives that are built on it.
In his works, Shonibare portrays the complexity of cultural identity, which is often buried under the broad labels of criticism. History of Art is still somewhat fixated on rigid categorisations. This depends in part on the way in which the subject is taught in universities, through thematic courses that inevitably rely on some degree of generalisation. Artists like Shonibare consciously blur the meaning of those categories, showing how styles and cultures are a byproduct of the historical narratives that we employ to make the complexity of the past intelligible.