The Medieval Historian and I are up in Nottingham to see my mother. While we were in the vicinity we thought we would go and see the exhibition of Yinka Shonibare MBE’s work at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park near Wakefield.
I have been a fan of his work since I saw an installation in an exhibition in the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol probably twenty years ago. His work is political but utterly engaging, and his project is to enrol rather than alienate spectators. This is an information panel for the show from the cafe – no photography allowed in the galleries – explaining what he wants to do:
I can’t help but feel that radical politics in general would get further with this sort of attitude, and it is what I think I am doing in my work – making comments and provocations but not ramming it down people’s throats – in the old story the sun got the man to take his coat off much quicker than the wind.
I love Shonibare MBE’s work because of his dazzling and endlessly inventive use of African textiles, those Manchester cloths with their complicated history:
They are fussy cut, expertly and wittily. They make their comment about slavery, racism and oppression in a way that makes you smile as you feel your colonialist, imperialist guilt. I have never seen this piece, but it makes the point clearly that Mr and Mrs Joseph Andrews or people very like them’s money came directly from the slave trade by dressing his figures in African cloth:
His famous massive ship in a bottle in Trafalgar Square made an elegant comment about the maritime might of Britain being used in the slave trade.
The figures in his work are deliberately headless. This started as a joke about the French Revolution but he now uses the device to stop people putting a race on the figures: they could be any nationality.
What I really enjoyed though was the quality of the making. The patterns matched beautifully and were cut so imaginatively that they might have been painted on. There were little decorative details like embroidery on petticoats that very few people would have noticed but they were there. There is a wonderful video of a ballet piece right at the end of the show which shows the costumes in motion (as well as making a point about the tenacious quality of power structures). It is exquisite and sumptuous and worth going for on its own.
I like his themes of otherness, excess, play, the price of progress and the irrepressibility (if that word exists) of the life force. The medieval historian was extremely dubious about going, but loved it when he got there, so I would recommend it for just about anyone. The final image is also from the cafe info boards, about what Shonibare MBE thinks he is doing when he makes art and I think he is absolutely right:
I like his honesty – why be outside and oppositional when you could be inside and subversive. Plus I love the idea of radical gentlemanly art. It’s hardly surprising that he is so interested in the figure of the dandy. I could have done without his pooh collages, but otherwise, I loved the whole thing, and there is a wonderfully classy shop and a cafe which has cinnamon shortbread which is utterly delicious. Something for everyone in fact.