Cover Story

The work of Yinka Shonibare CBE is instantly recognisable by his characteristic use of Dutch wax print. The British-Nigerian artist, who is known for exploring cultural identity, colonialism and post-colonialism, uses this brightly coloured fabric in sculptures to question assumptions about African culture.

In 2014, Shonibare put together an installation highlighting the impact of immigration on British culture. Five years later, The British Library is now open to the public as part of Tate Modern’s collection displays. The installation is a celebration of the diversity of the British population, containing 6,328 books covered in Dutch wax print.

Dutch wax print was developed in the nineteenth century in the Netherlands as a mass-produced imitation of batiks produced in Indonesia, a Dutch colony at the time. The cheaper, machine-made textiles were poorly received in Indonesia. In West and Central Africa, however, they were quickly adopted and absorbed into local traditions. Thus, their inclusion in Shonibare's work draws attention to the geography of colonialism. 

Printed in gold leaf on the spines of 2,700 of the books, are the names of first or second generation immigrants to Britain, both celebrated and lesser-known, who have made significant contributions to British culture and history. Among names such as Hans Holbein, Beverley Knight, Dame Helen Mirren and Danny Welbeck are also the names of those who have opposed immigration. Other books are unmarked, suggesting that the story of immigration in Britain is still being written. 

See The British Library at the Tate Modern in London, UK until 17 November 2019.


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