Yinka Shonibare is a contemporary British artist of Nigerian heritage. His mixed-media works challenge assumptions about culture, colonial influences, and nationalities, and often deploy the colorful printed textiles so indelibly associated with Africa. He was a finalist for the prestigious Turner Prize in 2004, the British art world's most coveted honor. "Art is better than life," Shonibare told Times of London writer Michael Glover. "You can construct your own history, your own fantasy within a range of artifices. There are no boundaries. It is like being an alchemist with a power of transformation."
Shonibare was born in London, England, in 1962, the third child in a family of Yoruba heritage, which is one of the main ethnic groups of West Africa. His parents had left their native Nigeria and settled in London, but when Shonibare was three years old his father, an attorney, decided to return. They settled in Lagos, Nigeria's capital, where Shonibare attended private, English-language schools, but kept their home in London for use during the summer months. At the age of 16 Shonibare was sent back to England for a longer stint at boarding school. After graduating, he began taking classes at the Wimbledon School of Art, but at the age of 19 came down with transverse myelitis, a rare viral infection that left him paralyzed for a month and forced him to spend the next three years in a wheelchair. Rehabilitation helped him walk again, but he was permanently paralyzed on his left side, which forced him to use a cane.
Explored Conflict in Biculturalism
Shonibare's father disapproved of his artistic ambitions, but relented enough to let him attend the Byam Shaw School of Art in London, which later became part of Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. Early on, Shonibare was fascinated by politics, history, and culture, and sought to incorporate those interests into his art. During the mid-1980s when historic events started in the Soviet Union that resulted in the end of that country's monolithic communist regime in a few years' time, Shonibare took notice. One day, a teacher saw some of his work that dealt with the topic, and commented, "'Why are you making art about Russia? Why don't you produce authentic African art?'" Shonibare recalled in an interview with Ingrid Sischy for the New York Times Magazine. "That's when I started to think about issues around authenticity and what it meant. Africans are part of the modern world, and yet he somehow felt that my African origin meant that I couldn't enter a modern debate."
The comment did force Shonibare to wonder how he might make art that had more personal relevance for him. With this in mind, he made the first of the witty artistic comments that would become the hallmark of his work: he juxtaposed traditional African tribal masks and sculptures next to Western household appliances. After earning a graduate degree in art from Goldsmiths College in 1991, he began showing at various London galleries. He and several other Goldsmiths alumni would eventually emerge as part of the Young British Artists (YBA) movement, a group of talented visual artists whose work revitalized the British contemporary art scene.
Around the time he graduated from Goldsmiths, Shonibare began using African fabrics he bought at a market in Brixton, a predominantly black section of London. He was fascinated by the origins of the colorful, wax-printed cotton, also known as Dutch wax, which had been worn by politicians and others in newly independent African nations as a symbol of ethnic pride. But the fabric was actually an Indonesian batik, and had been exported into Africa from English or Dutch textile mills for generations. Shonibare was thoroughly enchanted by the idea that something so deeply associated with Africa had, in fact, little to do with any genuine African cultural traditions. His first work to use the fabric was a 1991 collection of figures, Dysfunctional Family, for the group show Interrogating Identity at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
Printed Cotton Became Emblematic
The zenith of the YBA movement came in 1997 with the Sensation exhibition at London's Royal Academy. Two of Shonibare's pieces were included, which were life-sized, headless figures clad in exuberant African cloth fashioned into elaborate Victorian-period dress. That same year, he had his first solo show in London at the Stephen Friedman Gallery. For that and subsequent shows, Shonibare made dozens of these life-sized figures—using tailor's dummies as their foundation—usually cheekily re-creating familiar scenes from the canon of European art. In other works, he was the model, such as a series of photographs commissioned by London's transit authority for a temporary art installation; these featured Shonibare as the model, dressed in Victorian-era men's wear made from the Dutch wax cloth, and posed to replicate the eighteenth-century scenes from William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress.
Shonibare had his first solo show in New York City at the Brent Sikkema Gallery in 1999. His exhibitions in London continued to draw crowds, and he was not afraid to challenge perceptions about himself and his art, often with a characteristically subversive sense of humor. At one of his London art openings, for example, he was followed around all evening by two Caucasian actors posing as footmen. Both were dressed in Victorian servants' costumes, made from the Dutch wax cloth, and one carried a tray with Shonibare's drink, the other a chair for him to use when he tired.
Shonibare made his first film in 2004, Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball). It was a short that depicted the assassination of Sweden's King Gustav III at a masked ball in 1792. Shonibare was fascinated by the foppish Scandinavian regent, who loved all things French. "He even had a crazy plan to rescue the French aristocracy during the time of the Revolution," Shonibare told Glover in the London Times. "And then there is his sexual ambiguity, which is hinted at in various portraits. The power games, the frustrations, the drama: all these I find captivating." The story was told through dance, but without music, and dancers wore elaborate Baroque-period costumes made from Dutch wax cloth.
Finalist for Turner Prize
Shonibare was in Sweden in the spring of 2004, preparing the film's premiere at an exhibition at Stockholm's Moderna Museet, when he learned that he had been shortlisted for the Turner Prize. This is Britain's most sought-after artistic honor, presented annually by the Tate Museum to an artist under the age of 50. It comes with a generous prize purse, and Shonibare was the odds-on favorite to win, according to opinion polls. The prize, however, went to Jeremy Deller instead, for his documentary film about Crawford, Texas, the site of U.S. President George W. Bush's vacation ranch.
In 2005, Shonibare came to New York City for a special exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt, a museum devoted to contemporary design and design history that is part of the Smithsonian Institution. Titled Yinka Shonibare Selects: Works from the Permanent Collection, the show featured a trove of found objects that Shonibare had unearthed at the museum, which had been founded by two well-traveled sisters and arts aficionados. What he pulled out of the collection were transportation-themed symbols of their globetrotting adventures, which he juxtaposed next to cages and other symbols of entrapment he also found. Not surprisingly, he made a pair of figures of the sisters, Miss Nelly and Miss Sally, both dressed in Dutch wax cloth.
At a Glance …
Born in 1962 in London, England; son of an attorney. Education: Attended Byam Shaw School of Art, 1984–89; Goldsmiths College, MA, 1991.
Career: Artist, 1980s–.
Awards: Tate Gallery, Turner Prize finalist, 2004.
Addresses: Home—London, England. Agent—Stephen Friedman Gallery, 25-28 Old Burlington St., London W1S 3AN, United Kingdom.
Shonibare lives in East London, where he continues to explore what it means to be African living in an urban, European world. He still ventures to Brixton to buy his Dutch-wax bolts. "My work is about breaking boundaries," he told Sischy in the New York Times Maga-zine interview. "Superficially it seems to be African. You go: 'Yeah! He's working with Africa. Great!' Then you realize zilch comes from Africa," he explained, referring to the Dutch wax cloth. "Before you stereotype people, think about it. What you see in front of you is just the surface. There are many stories behind it."
Diary of a Victorian Dandy (self-portrait photographs commissioned for the London Underground), 1998.
Affectionate Men, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2000.
Double Dutch, Boijmans van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam, Netherlands, 2004.
Yinka Shonibare Selects: Works from the Permanent Collection, Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York City, 2005.
African Arts, Autumn 2001, p. 60; Summer 2005, p. 91.
Art in America, May 2006, p. 98.
New York Times Magazine, February 20, 2005, p. 186.
Times (London, England), June 21, 2000, p. 22; October 20, 2004, p. 14.