At first glance, Yinka Shonibare MBE is not an obvious candidate for an exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The artist is best known for working in textiles (acknowledged in the title of this survey exhibition – FABRIC-ATION) a medium not typically shown out of doors. But he is also known for weaving in to his work ideas about post-colonialism, multiculturalism and trade – taking as his starting point the way that people of African origin are regarded in the UK – and so the idea of exhibiting somewhere so very English must have had a perverse appeal.
Artworks have been temporarily sited outside at Yorkshire Sculpture Park since the 1940s and from the 1990s it has also had indoor exhibition space. In the fields surrounding the visitor centre, sheep and lambs chew the grass next to artworks by Henry Moore, Andy Goldsworthy, Barbara Hepworth, James Turrell, Kwanho Yuh, Sir Anthony Caro, Sol leWitt, Richard Long, and Sophie Rider to name but a few. To walk alongside the river and breathe deeply of the fresh air and beautiful vistas is affirming; however, this stunning context can diminish the impact of individual works of art.
Surprisingly, this is Shonibare’s largest show to date (he is still waiting for a full retrospective). Since 2004 when he was nominated for the Turner prize and awarded Membership of The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) the artist has sat within the mainstream of British art. He is acutely aware of the apparent contradiction of these accolades and his role as spokesperson for outsiders, saying, “Yes, okay, I am here to protest, but I am going to do it like a gentleman. You are not even going to realise that I am protesting, you are going to invite me to your museum because the work is nice, and then when I am inside it is too late.”
FABRIC-ATION is mostly indoors, but there are two exterior works. Wind Sculpture I and II are made of fibreglass and steel. They are painted to look like a flag or handkerchief made of the distinctive African fabric that has become Shonibare’s trademark, but instead of rippling in the wind, their dynamic forms are frozen stiff. They are attractive but probably the most trivial of all of the works in the show; they don’t manage to transport the audience to a new world and have none of the artist’s usual caustic humour.
Inside the gallery, the full spectrum of Shonibare’s output is on display. There are mannequins with animal heads or running-water-taps for heads, golden guns, aliens, Americana, constellations made of circular canvases, canons, masculine posturing, overblown femininity, conflict, dancing, dreams, a wall of eggs, looping films and masquerade balls; all wrapped up in brightly coloured African batik fabric and bought to life by an artist who says, “art making is a type of alchemy, making gold from nothing.”
Shonibare has used African fabrics since he was at art school. He juxtaposes the fabric with costume styles that are reminiscent of 19th-century upper class Britain, prompting us to question the wealth and values of a period of history that is endlessly romanticised. However, it is not simply the exoticism of the designs that attracts him; it is also the secret provenance of the fabric: it is not made in Africa at all but since the 1840s has been manufactured in the Netherlands. The fabric’s other charm is the use of figurative motifs, which become both character and set dressing in the artist’s hands and can include the Chanel brand logo, light bulbs, space ships, circuit boards, top hats or magic wands.
Less well known than his sculptures are Shonibare’s works on paper and short films. Based on this exhibition, his works on paper fail to live up to his work in other media. The Climate Shit drawings, produced in 2008 from ‘newspaper headlines, collaged batik-fabric flowers, images of faeces, gold foil, hand drawn images and texts’ are like sketchbook pages – revealing a work in progress as the artist tries to reconcile his visual language with his concern about climate change and the international economy of oil. They do not have the poignancy of his Girl on Globe sculpture, which confronts the same issues. Conversely his films are extremely watchable and feel as though they develop naturally from the theatricality of his installations.
Shonibare says it can be “difficult to separate what something looks like and what it expresses.” The exhibition has been hugely popular – probably because the work can be marketed as colourful and fun, but once you are in the gallery it is impossible to escape his wit and critique. He may have used politeness to secure a seat at the table, but now he is here he isn’t going to back down from the argument.
Article first published in Art World magazine, Shanghai June issue 2013