Yinka Shonibare CBE, RA (born 1962) is a British-Nigerian artist living in the United Kingdom. His work explores cultural identity, colonialism and post-colonialism within the contemporary context of globalisation. A hallmark of his art is the brightly coloured Ankara fabric he uses. Because he has a physical disability that paralyses one side of his body, Shonibare uses assistants to make works under his direction.
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Life And Career
Yinka Shonibare was born in London in 1962. When he was three years old, his family moved to Lagos, Nigeria, where his father practised law. At 17, he returned to Britain to do his A-levels at Redrice School. Shonibare contracted transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord, at the age of 18, which resulted in a long-term physical disability where one side of his body is paralysed. He then studied Fine Art first at Byam Shaw School of Art (now Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design) and then at Goldsmiths, the University of London, where he received his MFA, graduating as part of the Young British Artists generation. Following his studies, Shonibare worked as an arts development officer for Shape Arts, an organisation which makes arts accessible to people with disabilities.
He has exhibited at the Venice Biennial and at leading museums worldwide. He was notably commissioned by Okwui Enwezor at Documenta XI in 2002 to create his most recognised work Gallantry and Criminal Conversation that launched him on an international stage.
In 2004, he was shortlisted for the Turner Prize for his Double Dutch exhibition at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam and for his solo show at the Stephen Friedman Gallery, London. Of the four nominees, he seemed to be the most popular with the general public that year. A BBC website poll, resulted in 64% of voters stating that his work was their favourite.
Shonibare became an Honorary Fellow of Goldsmiths’ College in 2003, was awarded an MBE in 2004, received an Honorary Doctorate (Fine Artist) of the Royal College of Art in 2010 and was appointed a CBE in 2019. He was elected Royal Academician by the Royal Academy of Arts in 2013. He joined Iniva’s Board of trustees in 2009. He has exhibited at the Venice Biennial and internationally at leading museums worldwide. In September 2008, his major mid-career survey commenced at the MCA Sydney and toured to the Brooklyn Museum, New York, in June 2009 and the National Museum of African Art of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, in October 2009. In 2010, Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle became his first public art commission on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square.
On 3 December 2016, one of Shonibare’s “Wind Sculpture” pieces were installed in front of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art (NMAA) in Washington, DC. The painted fibreglass work, titled “Wind Sculpture VII”, is the first sculpture to be permanently installed outside the NMAA’s entrance.
He runs Guest Projects, a project space for emerging artists based in Broadway Market, east London. He is extending this to spaces in Lagos and Nigeria.
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Shonibare’s work explores issues of colonialism alongside those of race and class, through a range of media which include painting, sculpture, photography, installation art, and, more recently, film and performance. He examines, in particular, the construction of identity and tangled interrelationship between Africa, Europe and their respective economic and political histories. Mining Western art history and literature, he asks what constitutes our collective contemporary identity today. Having described himself as a ‘post-colonial’ hybrid, Shonibare questions the meaning of cultural and national definitions. People always took his work seriously and he said ” if love someone fight for them with your hands”
Shonibare is well-known for creating headless, life-size sculptural figures meticulously positioned and dressed in vibrant wax cloth patterns in order for history and racial identity to be made complex and difficult to read. In 2003, Shonibare reconstructs the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 in Scramble for Africa when European leaders negotiated and arbitrarily divided the continent in order to claim African territories. By exploring colonialism, particularly in this tableaux piece, the purpose of the headless figurines implies the loss of humanity as Shonibare explains, “I wanted to represent these European leaders as mindless in their hunger for what the Belgian King Leopold II called ‘a slice of this magnificent African cake.’” Scramble for Africa cannot be read as a ‘simple satire,’ but rather it reveals “the relationship between the artist and the work.” It is also an examination of how history tends to repeat itself. Shonibare states, “When I was making it I was really thinking about American imperialism and the need in the West for resources such as oil and how this pre-empts the annexation of different parts of the world.
Shonibare’s Trumpet Boy, a permanent acquisition displayed at The Foundling Museum, demonstrates the colourful fabric used in his works. The sculpture was created to fit the theme of ‘found’, reflecting on the museum’s heritage, through combining new and existing work with found objects kept for their significance.
Shonibare also takes carefully posed photographs and videos recreating famous British paintings or stories from literature but with himself taking centre stage as an alternative, black British dandy, e.g., A Rake’s Progress by Hogarth which he translates into Diary of A Victorian Dandy (1998) or Dorian Gray (2001) after Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.
In October 2013 Shonibare took part in Art Wars at the Saatchi Gallery curated by Ben Moore. The artist was issued with a stormtrooper helmet, which he transformed into a work of art. Proceeds went to the Missing Tom Fund set up by Ben Moore to find his brother Tom, who has been missing for more than ten years. The work was also shown on the Regent’s Park platform as part of Art Below Regents Park.
The Goodman Gallery announced in 2018 that the Norval Foundation, South Africa’s newest art museum based in Cape Town, has made a permanent acquisition of Shonibare’s Wind Sculpture (SG) III, making it the first for the African continent. The sculpture will be unveiled in February 2019, increasing the British-Nigerian artist’s visibility on the continent where he grew up.
Featured Image Source: UKDHM
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