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Yinka Shonibare MBE is an artist who works in layers. First you have comedy: Victorian era gentiles mid-orgy, oh my! Second, you have historical reproductions: Victorian era bustles, impeccable! Third, you have colonialism: This brightly colored cloth is African not British! And lastly, you have a whole new understanding of race, hierarchy and world history.

The message may be serious, but the tone is light. Shonibare himself likens his “fantasies of empowerment” to a Trojan horse, “with the Trojan horse, you can go in unnoticed. And then you can wreak havoc.”

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Natalie Hopkinson recently reviewed his mid-career retrospective at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art.

In this heavily theoretical interview from BOMB Magazine in 2005, Shonibare speaks about his interest in high culture and his progression from sculpture to photography to video to ballet. Quoting Roland Barthes, Bertolt Brecht and the French New Wave, Shonibare addresses the theory behind his practice and his commitment to bringing high culture to the street.

Read the full interview from BOMB Magazine Issue 93, Fall 2005.

—Adda Birnir

Anthony Downey: Let’s start with Un Ballo in Maschera. Why this turn to film?

Yinka Shonibare: My work has always used a theatrical language. The first time I did anything filmic was in photography: The Picture of Dorian Gray [2001] was actually a series of stills from a film in which I acted out the various parts in Dorian Gray. I’ve always wanted to do film, but I did photography, I did stills, because I just did not have the resources to make the kind of film I envisioned. My work comments on power, or the deconstruction of power, and I tend to use notions of excess as a way to represent that power—deconstructing things within that. I needed to do something very elaborate in this case, and of course that would require financial resources. The production of Un Ballo in Maschera was a collaboration between Moderna Museet in Stockholm and Swedish television. The agreement with Swedish television was that they would make a documentary of me making the film, and that was what they would show, but when they saw the finished film they created prime-time space for it. I thought that was very impressive, to have an art film on the Swedish equivalent of the BBC at 8 PM. Then again, the interest in art in Stockholm and Sweden generally, the interest in culture, is quite high. But back to your question: I’d also wanted to link my costume work with the masquerade performance aspect of my practice, and it seems a progressive logic to move from the photographic work and the tableaus with the paintings I’d done and conclude with film.

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AD: I would like to further link the notion of excess with the idea of theatricality in your work. Do you see that excess as something beyond theater?

YS: The main preoccupation within my art education was the construction of signs as outlined in Roland Barthes’s Mythologies. So the idea of the theatrical for me is actually about art as the construction of a fiction, art as the biggest lie. What I want to suggest is that there is no such thing as a natural signifier, that the signifier is always constructed—in other words, that what you represent things with is a form of mythology. Representation itself comes into question. I think that theater enables you to really emphasize that fiction. For example, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, a black man plays within an upper-class nineteenth-century setting, and also in The Diary of a Victorian Dandy. The theatrical is actually a way of re-presenting the sign.

AD: What you’re saying is that the sign itself is unstable, which ties into the notion of the identitarian ambiguity that you bring out in the masquerade in Un Ballo in Maschera.

YS: It goes further than that. On the one hand, the masquerade is about ambiguity, but on the other hand—and you could take the masquerade festivals in Venice and Brazil as examples—it involves a moment when the working classes could play at being members of the aristocracy for a day, and vice versa. We’re talking about power within society, relations of power. As a black person in this context, I can create fantasies of empowerment in relation to white society, even if historically that equilibrium or equality really hasn’t arrived yet. It’s like the carnival itself, where a working-class person can occupy the position of master for however long the Venice carnival goes on—and it goes on for ages—and members of the aristocracy could take on the role of the working class and get as wild and as drunk as possible. So the carnival in this sense is a metaphor for the way that transformation can take place. This is something that art is able to do quite well, because it’s a space of transformation, where you can go beyond the ordinary.

Read the full interview from BOMB Magazine Issue 93, Fall 2005.

Used with permission. All rights reserved. © Bomb Magazine, New Art Publications, and its Contributors.

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