Anyone who’s ever visited Covent Garden in the last few years may have already seen the sculptural work of Yinka Shonibare without realising it. Planted on the side of The Royal Opera House building is a snow-globe, and inside it slowly twirls a life-size sculpture of a ballerina dressed in full costume, with a globe for a head. Just as recognisable is Yinka’s Nelson’s Ship In A Bottle, the commission he made in 2010 for the famous Fourth Plinth overlooking London’s Trafalgar Square. Widely known for exploring issues of race and class through many different art forms, Yinka now has new work on show in the group exhibition End of Empire, on at The Musée d'Art Contemporain du Val-de-Marne in France until this September.
For this show Yinka has once again returned to populating the gallery with his decked-out headless figures. Each one of them is dressed in brightly coloured ‘African’ batik fabric – a material that he buys in London and one that has now become somewhat of a trademark material for him. This fabric is often misinterpreted as a typical African textile, but it was in fact originally inspired by Indonesian design, mass-produced by the Dutch and eventually sold to the colonies in West Africa. It wasn’t until the 1960s when the material became a new sign of African identity and independence, completely contradicting the reality that it was, and is, another by-product of Western colonialism.
Born in London in 1962, Yinka moved to Lagos, Nigeria at the age of three and later returned to London to study Fine Art at Central Saint Martins, and then at Goldsmith College. After being nominated for the prestigious Turner Prize in 2004, he has been building momentum ever since. Now, at a time when feelings of cultural disenfranchisement have never been so widely related in the public sphere, Yinka’s work is more relevant than ever.
In response to Batik Politics and the comment. “This fabric is often misinterpreted as a typical African textile, but it was in fact originally inspired by Indonesian design, mass-produced by the Dutch and eventually sold to the colonies in West Africa”. I think it’s a bit like saying tartan is not typically Scottish because of its origins. The history of the “African” wax cloth is so much more complicated than this. There’s a helpful overview in African Textiles Today. Whist the inspiration and technology came from Indonesia & Europe, (funded through colonisation). To be a commercial success, the cloth had to reflect African tastes, aesthetics, proverbs, culture and patronage. (Spring 2012) A visit to any West African country today shows how prolific this cloth is an important typical expression of African culture and national identity.