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.
It has taken a while for the world to catch up with Shonibare’s vision. The 47-year-old artist, who was born in London to a Nigerian corporate-lawyer father, was always puzzled by the assumptions the world made about him. Like well-meaning white Britons who pitied the poor black child who grew up speaking Yoruba at home. Never mind that he also grew up speaking English at elite boarding schools—and while summering at the family’s London home. As he chortled to the London Evening Standard: “I thought it was rather funny that I was meant to be inferior.”
And most critically, there was the white British tutor who innocently asked Shonibare, if he was African, then why wasn’t he making “authentic” African art? The response to this question has guided his art ever since:
It is an answer that takes the form of paintings, sculpture, photography and short films. He typically takes a Eurocentric cultural icon, from the Victorian Dandy, to the film Dorian Gray, the economist Adam Smith, to the tragic hero Willy Loman from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and turns it upside down. Often the twist is the artist himself, making wry cameo appearances in elaborately staged photographs a la Cindy Sherman. Another favorite method is to cloak his paintings and sculptures in “African” textiles. But even textiles are not quite “authentic.” The Dutch originally got the textiles from their colony in Indonesia, then produced and sold them in Africa, where they were adopted as native dress. So even the textiles’ presence throughout Shonibare’s work is presented with a wink. Of course, it helps to be in on the joke.
“I like the paradox of the fabrics, the refusal of the fabrics to actually be located in one place,” Shonibare explained in an interview with Artnet TV. “They’ve gone through this very interesting journey. In a way that journey is for me, is a metaphor for contemporary kind of Diaspora. The interconnectedness between things.”
Later, Shonibare continues: “I think the search for authenticity in culture is a noble one,” he says, then breaks into a sly grin. “But actually, in reality, it’s very rare to find a culture that hasn’t evolved as a result of influences from other cultures.”
This is a message that prominent art critics have cheered, if not completely understood. The New York Times critic Benjamin Genocchio situated Shonibare among the now clichéd “faces of a changing Britain.”
Genocchio wrote: “The artist—impersonating a dandy—inserts himself into scenes of Victorian-era leisure, where he stands out as the only black person in the picture.” Ditto the New York Post’s Barbara Hoffman: “Throughout, his gaze seems distracted, otherworldly. He's an outsider—the lone black man in a sea of sycophantic white folks who could easily stab him in his pink-vested back.”
Well, not exactly. The whole point of the series is that Shonibare is not inserting himself, nor is he impersonating anyone. He is the Victorian Dandy. What makes the photos so deliciously subversive is just how perfectly entitled he seems. Nestled among a blur of 19th-century whiteness, his smirking brown pose is natural and completely at home. He’s no outsider; this is his world. The real subtext to this work is that Britain did not begin changing when V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith and M.I.A. hit the scene. The empire began changing right around the time it began staking claim to distant lands. So London’s much-discussed multiculturalism is not some recent fad, but something deeply ingrained in the DNA of Great Britain.
Back at the exhibit, I swiftly redirected my 5-year-old daughter Maven away from the orgy scene, and parked her in front of his video installation ''Odile and Odette'' (2005). Maven was transfixed by the film of two ballerinas, one black and one white, both wearing tutus made in African textiles, creating mirror images of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” She watched the scene over and over again. When I asked if she was ready to move on, she nodded an emphatic yes. “We’re not getting anywhere over here,” she told me.
In that assessment, my daughter has company with some critics, who’ve dismissed Shonibare’s work as “a little last decade.” And as much as I enjoy his work, there is some truth there. By now, we know the drill: Remix. Signify. Adapt. Clown. Riff. Update. Blacken. Ironize. Retweet. It’s what African-American art and music has done for centuries.
But given proven inability for the powers that be to fully grasp the changing world order, it’s a message that bears repeating—over and over again. There is nothing new or strange about belonging to more than one culture at the same time. And change is not some newfangled campaign slogan from a community organizer with a Kenyan name. From the very beginning of the empire, it has been steadily marching across the globe.
Natalie Hopkinson is associate editor of The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
Also on The Root:
GALLERY: The Art of the Yoruba Trickster
Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington, D.C.-based author whose current projects deal with the arts, gender and public life. She is the author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter.