Shonibare's most famous works play on the idea of origin and power. The first lecture is clear: headless people are scrambling for Africa. They are dressed in European clothes, but made of African fabric. They are false. But this goes further. The type of cloth they use, called batik, is used throughout Africa (and not only) and considered a local tradition. But, as Shonibare says, that is not the case:
...the fabrics are not authentically African – they were produced by the Dutch in the 19th century and then subsequently by the English for sales to the African market.That makes the situation even more absurd and scary. What is left of Africa? And what can be left for Africa?
But there is another issue related to Shonibare that has been interesting me more. The freedom of the artist vs. the necessity of his functioning well in the system.
Let's start off with this:
Yinka Shonibare, The Swing (after Fragonard) (2001)
How much does the artist need to know about what he is doing?
And really the idea behind it is to draw a parallel with the relationship between the contemporary first world and third-world countries. I want to show that behind excessive lifestyles there are people who have to provide the labour to make this kind of lifestyle happen.
But generally I think I made a piece of work about this painting because I actually admire the work very much. And I like the contradiction of taking something that’s supposedly ‘ethnic’ and putting that onto classical European painting.
All this seems fairly light, naive, compared to what the critics have to say about Yinka Shonibare's works. Does this mean he is unaware of the worlds he is creating? Is he simply using strong imagery that brings about a huge load of references? Possibly. Does that change anything? Does that make him a worse artist? Should the artist be his own critic? Should he be a philosopher as well?
Obviously, the artist part of being an artist is to make art. And then, see what happens. That's in the ideal world. In the one I know, the artist also sells his product, by being who he is, by having the life he has, by speaking the way he speaks. This doesn't signify the impossibility of defending oneself through work alone, but certainly makes it all the more difficult. And brings another issue.
What if Yinka Shonibare didn't make contemporary ethnic art? What if his work were just contemporary, and dealt with, say McDonald's or sex or any other issue? And let's imagine, for the sake of the argument, that it weren't any worse than what he is doing now. Would we know him? Who would he be? Would it matter that he is black, was born in London, lived in Nigeria and studied at Goldsmiths? There is a very irritating way the art world defines itself through basic associations of life and work. Possibly this has to do with the art having moved into a direction that is so difficult to judge (although artists like Shonibare play remixing the old school in a somewhat old-school way) that more is required in order to give it value (clearly also market value).
Isn't there something wrong with this picture? Some sort of an obsession that has more to do with the way one is seen than with the way one sees? Of course, Bacon had enough guts to spill them over and over again on the canvas. But let's put it bluntly: most of us, most of artists, are not Francis Bacon. And still, they keep on painting the same painting. Looking for what? Perfection? Style? Truth? Exploring? Or self-branding, self-censoring?
Yinka Shonibare, Toy Painting 26 & Toy Painting 27 (2005)