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Depicting colonialism and globalization through art ‘full of contradiction’

January 12, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
A “Wind Sculpture” by visual artist Yinka Shonibare MBE was recently installed in front of the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. It’s the seventh in Shonibare's series of vibrantly colored and patterned public artworks that are made of fiberglass, but look like cloth. Jeffrey Brown talks to Shonibare about his interest in depicting globalization and what he asks of his viewers.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: a profile of an artist who has lived on three continents and explores history and identity in today’s global culture.

Jeffrey Brown has our story.

JEFFREY BROWN: On a recent morning in Washington, D.C., this wind sculpture was lifted in and installed outside the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. It’s the latest in a series of public art works on display around the world by the artist Yinka Shonibare.

YINKA SHONIBARE MBE, Artist: It’s a freestanding sculpture, but it’s a very dynamic sculpture, and it’s very colorful. And, also, it’s deceptive, because, from a distance, it feels like it’s actually soft material.

JEFFREY BROWN: Playful, deceptive, full of contradiction, the stuff of Shonibare’s works, most of all the sculptures for which he’s best known, colonial-style figures, some headless, some with globes for heads, in brightly colored African-style costumes.

YINKA SHONIBARE MBE: Actually, my work is really breaking down stereotypes, saying, you know what? What you see is not necessarily what you get. So, you might actually want to take time to find out more about something before you then start to make assumptions about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Shonibare himself is a mix of identities. Born in London in 1962, he moved to his family’s homeland in Nigeria at three years old, and then returned to London to study fine art.

At 19, he contracted a viral infection in his spine that left him partially paralyzed. He also began to see his way forward as an artist, through an unintentionally provocative question that came from a teacher.

YINKA SHONIBARE MBE: One of my teachers said, why aren’t you making authentic African art? I felt that, actually, what’s authentic African art, or what’s authentic identity in a global, modern world?

And so those questions have been with me since. And I have explored those questions in many ways.

JEFFREY BROWN: For example, those so-called African fabrics he uses, Shonibare actually found them in the Brixton area of London, but they were originally batik patterns from Indonesia brought by the Dutch to West Africa.

YINKA SHONIBARE MBE: So, the fabric is really an expression of the kind of hybrid identity. I’m suggesting that it’s African, and it’s also Dutch. It’s also Indonesian. And that’s OK.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why are so many of them headless or have globes as heads?

YINKA SHONIBARE MBE: First of all, I wanted to produce figures that didn’t belong to one particular race.

JEFFREY BROWN: You wanted to take race out of it?

YINKA SHONIBARE MBE: Yes, I wanted to take race out of the picture. A lot of the figures are of a mixed race. They are neither white nor black.

And I think that, also, I wanted to get away from the binary, the dividing of people. I felt that we’re all one humanity. So I wanted to find a way to represent one humanity, and to also take the race equation out of it.

JEFFREY BROWN: But while ideas run throughout his work, there’s also that playfulness and a concern for beauty and color.

YINKA SHONIBARE MBE: I think it’s very important for the audience to be able to actually engage with the work. I don’t want people to run away from my work, you know?

I want people to be attracted to the work. I want to draw them in. And I think color is one way of doing that. And then you can, if you wish to say something, people might be more sympathetic or be willing to engage and listen to you.

JEFFREY BROWN: A recent sculptural installation, titled the British Library, 6,000 books with the names of immigrants who’ve contributed to British society, is a more direct kind of commentary on contemporary issues.

YINKA SHONIBARE MBE: I don’t necessarily think that artists can single-handedly change the world. I think that if you really wanted to do that, I think you should go into politics.

I think that, as an artist, you have different concerns. The work can be funny, it can be ironic, it can be engaging, it can be dark, it can be entertaining, it can provoke, but not — it should never be an instruction.

JEFFREY BROWN: Can I just ask you finally a personal question about your disability? It obviously changed your life. Did it change your art?

YINKA SHONIBARE MBE: It took me a long time to try to recover and get back to my profession.

I have devised ways of working. I have a studio with a lot of assistants, and I design a lot of things, and I also paint. But I developed a way of working that I’m used to.

JEFFREY BROWN: You don’t see an impact on the content or the work itself?

YINKA SHONIBARE MBE: I don’t see an impact on the content or the work itself, but perhaps my level of empathy has actually increased as a result of what I have experienced personally.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yinka Shonibare’s latest wind sculpture is his seventh on display. He’s now creating a new series that will begin in the spring of 2018 at the entrance of Central Park in New York City.

From the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., I’m Jeffrey Brown for the “PBS NewsHour.”

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