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The (Not So) New World Order

Yinka Shonibare MBE’s career retrospective at the Smithsonian just goes to show how strange things get when the empire strikes black.

Charlotte Player

How “explicit” could the images be? Queen Elizabeth II herself honored the artist as a Member of the Order of the British Empire. Yinka Shonibare MBE, the Brit-Nigerian art world star, toast of two continents, was having a mid-career retrospective at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art.

So my kindergartener and I sailed past the warning signs, past the objections of the concerned security guard, turned a corner and immediately understood:

One headless female mannequin, bathed in classic Victorian crinoline dress rendered in an African textile print, stood bent over, rear end raised doggy-style to meet the groin of another headless male. Behind him, another headless man penetrated him. Steps away, another crinoline-clad woman kneeled, her head tucked beneath a swatch of African cloth as she pleasured another headless woman. Still another headless woman sat on a wooden bench, legs spread-eagled, shoulders thrown back in the throes of passion.

The art installation, “Gallery and Criminal Conversation,” was a play on the Victorian morality, norms, manners and social structures that have come to define the British Empire. The orgiastic scene was the London-born/Lagos-reared artist’s way of throwing all this supposed order into chaos. Kind of like the time he arrived at his London art opening trailed by two white slaves.

These days, life is indeed stranger than art. The Eurocentric world order has been turned upside down. This little show by the Yoruba trickster-artist is just another picture of what happens when the empire strikes black.