Headless manikins in vibrantly colored clothes point guns at each.
They sit at a round table discussing the fate of something unknown.
They decline in the luxurious setting of a wooded paradise.
These are a few of the installations that are part of artist Yinka Shonibare’s work. As my past blog posts have been perhaps a tad cynical, I thought I would focus on some work being done, that I perceive as successfully addressing the complexities of development in Africa and the ‘third world’.
Shonibare is one of my favourite artists, and I feel both his work and life experience speak to issues of identity, race and power relations that need to be addressed within the realm of development. Shonibare, who considers himself ‘bi-racial’, was born to a wealthy Nigerian family in London. He moved to Lagos, Nigeria, as a young child, but returned to London at the age of 16 to attend boarding school. Shonibare’s family owned homes in both London and Lagos allowing Shonibare to spend many summers in the UK. When Shonibare was 19, a viral disease attacked his immune system leaving him partly paralysed. Although Shonibare underwent physical therapy he still walks with a limp, and addresses his disability throughout his art. In his post- secondary education, Shonibare attended Wimbledon College of Art, London’s Byam Shaw School of Art and Goldsmiths College, completing his MA in fine arts.
A pivotal moment in Shonibare’s academic career and what would continue to shape his art to this day was a comment from one of his professors. While Shonibare was working on an art exhibit regarding Perestroika (the economic and political reforms introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987), his professor approached him. In an interview with Shonibare by the Zeleza Post, the reporter describes the encounter:
One day his tutor confronted him,
“Why are you making work about Perestroika?” the tutor, a white Briton, asked.
“You are African, aren’t you? Why don’t you make authentic African art?”
At first, Mr. Shonibare was taken aback.
“I tried to figure out what he meant by authentic African art,” he said.
“I didn’t know how to be authentic. What would I do if I was being authentic?”
“My tutor wanted me to be pure African,” Mr. Shonibare said,
“I wanted to show I live in a world which is vast and take in other influences, in the way that any white artist has been able to do for centuries.
The reporter continues to descibers Shonibare’s search of ‘authentic African-ness’:
[Shonibare]…visited an African fabric shop in the Brixton market in South London, discovering, to his amazement, that the best African fabric was actually manufactured in the Netherlands and exported to Africa. Further, the Dutch wax prints, as they are known, were originally inspired by Javanese batiks. This idea, that a fabric connoting African identity was not really African, delighted the budding conceptual artist.
The fabrics took on particular meaning for Shonibare and his work, as he explains:
The fabrics are not authentically African – they were produced by the Dutch in the 19th century and then subsequently by the English for sales to the African market. It is important that I don’t go to Africa to buy them, so that all African exotic implications remain fake.
They prove to have a crossbred cultural background quite of their own. And it’s the fallacy of that signification that I like. It’s the way I view culture, it’s an artificial construct.
It was these patterns that became the basis for Shonibare’s installations. Manikins in Victorian dress are used by Shonibare to engage with issues emerging from African colonialism. Among Shonibare’s installations are titles such as The Scramble for Africa, How to Blow up Two Heads at Once and The Swing. Shonibare tries to address the artificiality of some seemingly homogenous African identity. His work The Scramble for Africa has been recognized for identifying how the Berlin Conference arbitrarily created countries, influenced by various European cultures.
Shonibare’s art is not only restricted to installations, as much of his work includes sculptures, paintings and photography. One of his more famous works is his interpretation of Dorian Grey through photography. Shonibare recreates scenes from the work but inserts himself as an alternative black character. As with all his works, his photography addresses identity and power relations. Producing a scene in which a black male is in an influential position during the Victorian time period, speaks directly to power relations, race and African identity. While I could go on and on about Shonibare’s art, the complexity and relevance of his work may be lost in my writing and instead if you are interested I’d suggest watching these short videos of his interviews.
Shonibare’s art brings out important issues related to development, especially African development. This idea of a homogenous African continent and identity seems to plague development work. As I addressed in earlier posts, building a well, orphanage or school are perceived as one size fits all solutions. Often cultural specificities are ignored, and if not disregarded there are specific understandings of Africa that are addressed though development and also projected through western media sources. Images of rural settings, huts or tin roofed houses, ‘traditional’ African dress, women with babies tied to them, water on their heads and animals, dominate NGO advertisements and documents, focused on ‘improving’ conditions in Africa. While surely these images are related to real happenings in various parts of Africa, where are the complexities, the contradictions, and the diversity that we so often identify in our messy North American society?
-The cities, with their pollution, South African owned burger chains, and suit wearing workforce that easily pass the beggars on the concrete streets.
-The hospitals with their western trained doctors, using Japanese produced medicine, to help ‘African’ patients riddled with HIV.
-The online universities in Africa with their students from the upper echelons of society, who sit in their mansions on their laptops, while they stream lectures from Harvard University
I believe it is exactly this lack of acknowledged complexity, which Shonibare attempts to address through his work that needs to be examined in the study of African development. It is true that art addressing these complex issues can fall into the same trap as the other form of ‘development in North America’ that I have addressed in my blog. Perhaps it is just my personal bias derived from my love for modern art, however I feel that in constantly producing new work, publications and engaging in interviews, work like Shonibare’s, can facilitate a serious discussion. If you disagree, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it. Also if you are interested in Shonibare’s work, a good introduction to his work can be found at: http://www.nmafa.si.edu/exhibits/shonibare/intro.html.