Trained as a painter, Yinka Shonibare later moved on to photography, sculpture, installation and film. His work addresses issues of power in contemporary and historical culture. Shonibare sees areas of excess as a means to represent that power. The artist formulates relationships between classes, races and power structures using highly associative “African” fabrics (Dutch wax-printed cotton) to create clothing, rooms and environments. This type of fabric, popular in Africa, is often assumed to originate there. Actually, the material was developed in Indonesia, then exported to England and the Netherlands, then sold to African merchants. Like this fabric, Shonibare has moved between continents; born in London in 1962 to Nigerian parents, the family shortly thereafter moved to Lagos, Nigeria. Shonibare returned to England at age 16 to attend boarding school, followed by art studies in London, which is where he now lives and works.
In the installation Victorian Philanthropist’s Parlor, Shonibare creates a late 19th-century sitting room but replaces the traditional muted colors with bright prints on every surface—down to the bell pull next to the fireplace mirror—subverting the tasteful arrangement with a riot of color and pattern. This change creates an environment suggesting a different kind of inhabitant: perhaps this Victorian philanthropist is African, perhaps female? In trying to picture the person who would have such a room, colonialist history is brought to the fore. Using material such as Dutch wax-print fabric that has its own history of movement between continents, Shonibare addresses, in a decorative and seemingly lighthearted way, the shared history uniting Europe (and America) with Africa. At the same time, a more serious point is made, says the artist:
[…] 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 labor to make this kind of lifestyle happen.
Shonibare uses the same distinctive fabric in his sculptures and installations to make copies of European costumes and furnishings. In The Swing (after Fragonard), Shonibare creates a sculpture of the central figure in Jean-Honore Fragonard’s 1767 painting. To many, the original painting represents the frivolous spirit and loose morality of French aristocracy shortly before the revolution. However, Shonibare’s work is not just a parody of the original: “I made a piece of work about this painting because I actually admire the work very much,” he says. “And I like the contradiction of taking something that’s supposedly ‘ethnic’ and putting that onto classical European painting.”  Shonibare’s figure retains the ornate dress and highly-recognizable pose of the original, but is isolated and headless. Instead of pastel silks and cascades of lace, her ornate gown is composed of graphic cotton prints in contrasting patterns of the kind favored in Africa today, but Shonibare has altered the fabric to include fashion logos such as Chanel. The sculpture suggests a worldly woman of leisure, but raises questions as to her race, economic status and identity.
- How has Shonibare decorated his Victorian Philanthropist’s Parlor? How is this room different from what a Victorian-era parlor would look like? What is the purpose of a bell pull? Who might have a parlor today?
- What do the following words mean: philanthropist, colonialism, excess, aristocracy, first world, and third world?
- How did Dutch wax-printed cotton evolve? How has Shonibare changed the prints of his cloth?
- Compare and contrast the figures in both Shonibare and Fragonard’s swings. How do they represent the times in which they were created?
- Do you think these works are beautiful? Explain why or why not.
Research the slave trade and other forms of commerce linking Africa with Europe and America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Analyze the cause-and-effect relationships between the delivery of slave labor and goods such as tobacco and sugar with class and power structures of first and third world nations.