Authenticity and Hybrid Cultures: The Art of Yinka Shonibare


Yinka Shonibare, MBE, Homeless Child 3 (2013), mannequin, Dutch wax printed cotton textile, fibreglass, globe head, steel base plate, leather suitcases. © Yinka Shonibare MBE / licensed by SODRAC / Photo: Stephen White / Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York and Shanghai

DHC/ART’s survey exhibition of British artist Yinka Shonibare’s multidisciplinary work promises to shine a light on authenticity, the hybrid nature of culture, and how the two relate to one another.

The exhibition, Pièces de résistance, consists of 15 works, comprising films, photographs, paintings and sculptures, including a loan from the National Gallery of Canada, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews Without their Heads (1998). The sculpture — the oldest work by Shonibare in the exhibition — references the Thomas Gainsborough painting Mr. and Mrs. Andrews (c. 1750), depicting a prosperous young merchant and his wife who commissioned the painting to immortalize themselves and their vast estate. 


Yinka Shonibare, MBE, The Age of Enlightenment – Immanuel Kant (detail) [2008], life-size fiberglass mannequin, Dutch wax printed cotton, mixed media. © Yinka Shonibare MBE / Photo: Jason Mandella / licensed by SODRAC / Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York and Shanghai

“Shonibare’s figures wear clothing made from Dutch wax fabric, which is a comment on how their emerging status relates to Britain’s colonial exploits,” said exhibition curator Cheryl Sim in an interview with NGC Magazine. “The headlessness refers to the French Revolution and the beheading of aristocracy. The colour of their 'skin' is another deliberate choice: because it's difficult to discern that colour, it is impossible to guess the 'race' of these figures. The ambiguity around race, in this instance, is Shonibare's way of raising the notion of race as a construct rather than an actual identity, thereby exploring the concept of authenticity.”

Shonibare’s use of Dutch wax fabrics is one of his keys tools when it comes to addressing authenticity. The traditional rich hues and busy patterns of these fabrics have, over time, become a symbol of a pan-African culture. As Sim notes, these textiles are even used in African-American and African-Canadian societies to signify African cultural authenticity. What makes this ironic is that Dutch wax fabric initially found its way to Africa via colonizing powers that brought Indonesian batik techniques to the continent. Their use and adoption in Africa evokes the complexity of concepts such as identity, authenticity, ethnicity, race, class migration and globalization, adds Sim.


Yinka Shonibare, MBE, Addio del Passato (still) [2011], video, duration: 16 min 52 sec. © Yinka Shonibare MBE / image licensed by SODRAC / courtesy of James Cohan Gallery, New York and Shanghai

In the 17-minute film Addio del Passato (2012), the most recent of the three films in the exhibition, British soprano Nadine Benjamin portrays the historical figure of the former Frances “Fanny” Nisbet, Lord Nelson’s estranged wife. Benjamin is dressed in a Regency gown made of Dutch wax fabric, and wears a white wig as she walks through the stately buildings and grounds of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Singing an aria from Verdi’s opera La Traviata, Fanny expresses her sadness over her separation from Lord Nelson. Shonibare’s strategic choosing of Nadine Benjamin — a Black singer — underscores the betrayal of the so-called “civilizing mission” or colonization of Africa, explains Sim.

Born in London of Nigerian heritage, Shonibare moved to Lagos, Nigeria, with his family at age three, returning to Britain later to study art. His work has been exhibited extensively in the United States and Europe, including such prestigious venues as Documenta 10 and the 52nd Biennale di Venezia. Shonibare was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2004, and his sculpture Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle (2010) was commissioned for the prestigious Fourth Plinth series in London’s Trafalgar Square.


Yinka Shonibare, MBE, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (America) [2008], c-print, 207 x 147.32 x 6.3 cm. © Yinka Shonibare MBE / image licensed by SODRAC / courtesy of James Cohan Gallery, New York and Shanghai

“I’ve been following Shonibare’s work since the late 1990s,” says Sim. “It resonated with me, and with the personal questions I was having around authenticity, as a recent university graduate interested in identity politics. His work echoed these questions, and was a way to delve into these ideas through art.”

Sim adds that, “Shonibare’s ability to weave different historical threads of Western art with cinema, literature and painting was powerful for me as a person of colour growing up in Canada in the 1970s. His work and the questions he raises will, I think, speak to audiences in Montreal, and in Canada — a country that is made up of so many cultural, historical and political confluences. Audiences are also going to really enjoy the play of sensual beauty and critical engagement that this exhibition provides. It is an experience for both the mind and the senses.”

Pièces de résistance is on view at DHC/ART in Montreal from April 29 to September 20, 2015. For more information, please click here.

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