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An Artist Pushes Back Against Cultural Colonialism

An Artist Pushes Back Against Cultural Colonialism

This article is part of the Fine Arts & Exhibits special section on the art world’s expanded view of what art is and who can make it.


The multimedia British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare made his name with work that tackled colonialism, the subjugation of peoples that enabled the global slave trade and carved a callous cartography across Africa and other continents.

For more than three decades, Mr. Shonibare’s sculptures, paintings, videos, photography, films and installations have often employed Dutch wax fabric, the colorfully patterned textiles that are widely associated with Africa.

But for Mr. Shonibare, the fabric is also the embodiment of colonialism: Dutch colonists in the 1800s copied the batiks they found in Indonesia and mass-produced the fabrics in Holland. Finding no market in Europe, they sold the textiles in West Africa, where the fabric became ubiquitous.

Mr. Shonibare’s more recent works, including some on view in New York later this month, explore a different kind of colonialism — in his words, “the African contribution to Modernism,” which is how European artists in the 20th century developed Cubism and Abstraction, in part by adopting and adapting African aesthetics found in masks, instruments, carved figures and other objects they had encountered in museums or collected as artifacts from galleries or street markets in Europe.

Mr. Shonibare said his fascination with this part of art history “evolved from looking closely at Picasso’s collection of African art,” and later that of others, including André Derain, Constantin Brancusi and Francis Picabia. Even as these white male artists were lionized by Western art history, the African men and women who contributed to such a key part of Western visual culture remain nameless.

“Throughout Black culture, it’s always happened,” Mr. Shonibare said. “I wanted to somehow acknowledge that in my work.”

That acknowledgment is the foundation of “Boomerang: Returning to African Abstraction,” next Thursday through Dec. 22 at the James Cohan Gallery in Tribeca, where Mr. Shonibare will present new artwork: five quilt works, his first venture into tapestry, and three new handpainted bronze sculptures.

(He could not say yet whether this work will also be part of his recently announced participation in next spring’s Venice Biennale, where he will be among a group of artists representing Nigeria in that country’s second-ever national pavilion.)

Mr. Shonibare, 61, was warm and engaging during a recent visit to his multilevel studio in the Hackney area of London. It’s the city of his birth and the one to which he returned to earn his degrees in art and the honorifics that usually follow his name: he was promoted to Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 2019 by Queen Elizabeth II from the Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) distinction she had earlier bestowed. The RA that often accompanies his name stands for his election to the Royal Academy of Arts in 2013.

Mr. Shonibare was partially paralyzed after an illness just days after starting college. But a customized “lift,” as he calls it, let him roll up to a table in the studio’s upper office, where he sipped tea from a mug decorated with Russian dolls as he discussed his new body of work.

His desire to revisit the origins of Modernism was ignited by the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by police in Minneapolis in 2020. Mr. Shonibare found himself struck by the “paradox” of revulsion and reverence as he considered the “zeitgeist since the George Floyd moment.”

On the one hand, there is a continued “disregard” for Black people around the world, he said, with their existence treated like “push it into the ghetto, push it into the projects.” On the other, Africans and their diaspora, especially in the United States, have for the last century been driving what he termed “the whole global conversation on culture.”

In the art world, he said by way of example, the artists chosen to represent the United States at the last three Venice Biennales were African Americans — Simone Leigh, Martin Puryear and Mark Bradford. Looking back on 100 years of music: “If you removed Africa from global popular culture, there won’t be much left,” he said.

Without the influence of blues, jazz, funk, hip-hop, Afro-beats and other cultural contributions from the people and diaspora of Africa, what would you have? “Folk music?” he mused, with a laugh. “Yodeling?”

Mr. Shonibare was born to a Nigerian family in London in 1962, two years after Nigeria won its independence after a long struggle against British rule. At age 3 he moved with his family to Lagos, where his father practiced law in the new independent republic. Mr. Shonibare spent summers in England and attended the Byam Shaw School of Art and Goldsmiths College, both in London.

The artist said he wanted his new work to contend with “my own relationship to my ancestors and their contribution to Modernism.”

“I never practiced my culture,” he said, “I’d never used those ritual objects myself.”

He wondered: “If my encounter with my ancestral artifacts” has actually been through the “lens of Western museum culture” while studying art history, “what does that actually mean to me?”

Looking at the original African objects in museums, books and photos online felt as distorted as the history of Dutch wax fabric itself, he said. He played with that concept of distortion when creating the works for the New York exhibition.

After extensive research into the African masks and ritual objects that had inspired and in many cases been owned by some of the most famous artists of the 20th century, Mr. Shonibare drew them using a digital pen and tablet, largely from photos. Recently, in his street-level studio, three assistants bent over a big table and worked bits of brown fabric against a brightly colored background to depict the masks in textile. The assistants looked frequently to the wall above them, where they had pinned printouts of Mr. Shonibare’s designs.

In the quilt works produced for the New York show, African objects float over abstract argyle patterns made with cloth. In one he depicts three masks from the Fang and Bamana peoples in the countries now known as Gabon and Mali, and two that were from Derain’s personal collection. Another quilt work portrays five masks and objects from an array of African cultures; three had been part of Picasso’s personal collection. Yet another depicts the exact Bamana female figure Brancusi referenced.

Similarly, Mr. Shonibare’s one large-scale tapestry titled “Modern Spiritual (Fang Ngil, Kumbaduba)” — woven by the Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh from a drawing by Mr. Shonibare — depicts a mask referenced and possibly owned by Picabia that is now in the Louvre’s collection.

In the gallery, three new sculptures by Mr. Shonibare will have a room of their own. The sculptures are painted to resemble Dutch wax fabric. From a distance, they seem to wave weightlessly in the wind, but in fact they are made of bronze, chosen for its frequent use in Western culture for public monuments.

“I call them wind sculptures because I think about migration,” he said. The gallery describes how “the abstract forms monumentalize the wind as a metaphor for the movement of people across the globe, and by extension, histories of colonialism, slavery and empire.”

(One of the wind sculptures is also on view through Sunday in London’s Regent’s Park as part of Frieze Sculpture. Also in London, Stephen Friedman Gallery, which in 2021 presented a Shonibare show focused solely on Picasso, is exhibiting through Nov. 11 another body of work by the artist, dedicated to Dadaism and nature, in a show titled “Free The Wind, The Spirit, and The Sun.”)

Mr. Shonibare offers a caveat to his look-back at the art history of a century ago: “I don’t necessarily want to be moralistic about appropriation,” he said, since “we all have to be inspired by something and works that came before us.” But “we do have to acknowledge the imbalance of power,” he added.

“This is about fairness,” he said, adding that now is the time to ask: Does the world owe Africa something? He answered himself: “Yes, the world does.”

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Laura van Straaten

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