Celebrated the world over for his colourful and subversive explorations of colonialism and its legacy, South Africa now gets its turn to explore British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare’s work as he prepares to open his first solo exhibition in the country on 1 September.
We spoke with Shonibare in his studio in east London, where much of his large-scale sculpture and imagery is made. He is in the midst of creating work for Ruins Decorated, his show at Goodman Gallery Johannesburg, which explores ‘the inevitable downfall of the Roman Empire, leading us to discover the broken treasures of a bygone age’.
In the exhibition, Shonibare debunks, among others, the myth of classical sculpture originally being white. He takes some of history’s most celebrated icons, many of which were colourfully painted at first, and redecorates them in his signature batik fabric patterns.
The inspired new sculptures shatter the false impression that white skin was the ideal, and places Africa firmly back in the classical canon from which it was excluded by colonialism.
‘I recently made the discovery that classical Roman sculptures weren’t originally white. Then I read about a German art historian who put forward the idea that white marble sculpture was a marker of “high culture”. The white marble sculptures became very desirable after that and were seen as representing the height of Western civilisation.
‘Today, British right-wing groups have become the “champions” of these white marble sculptures, using them as their icon, or emblem. Then we have the alt-right in the US, who have started doing the same thing, using white sculpture to promote their racist agenda. So I wanted to somehow challenge that, and started painting my work with batik patterns, which seem decorative, but contain a lot of meaning and symbolism,’ he explains.
The artist has described himself and batik textiles as a post-colonial hybrid. His connection to the fabric came about after shopping at a market in London’s Brixton, where he learnt that it was first inspired by Indonesian designs, then mass-produced by the Dutch and eventually sold to the colonies in West Africa. It was only in the 1960s that batik then became a new sign of African identity and independence.
‘The material was the idea,’ says Shonibare. The discovery, and a tutor who encouraged him to focus on Africa in his work, forced him to unpack what an African identity was. ‘My tutor wanted me to be pure African, [but] I wanted to show I live in a world that is vast and takes in other influences, in the way that any white artist has been able to do for centuries’.
South Africa itself has long been part of Shonibare’s world. ‘South Africa has had a huge impact on my life. I grew up in Nigeria, and during apartheid there were a lot of South Africans living there. We were constantly watching the riots on TV, and documentaries of what was going on in the country. It had a large impact on Nigerians, who were trying to work out what was happening. Also, one of the first theatre productions I saw in my life was Ipi Tombi. Miriam Makeba was also huge at the time, and I loved her.’
Nelson Mandela, he reveals, is one of the struggle heroes who feature prominently in ‘African Library’, another major work that debuts at Ruins Decorated. The work takes the form of a library of almost 4 600 books, each wrapped in different batik fabrics and individually dedicated to the various personalities who have made a significant contribution to the independence struggles.
‘African Library’ really is a celebration of African achievement, and also of the struggles against the colonial context. ‘It’s an important artwork to do right now. Many countries are thriving post- independence, and the new generation is showing that there is a lot that can happen.’
Shonibare explains that it was important for him that Clementia – the Roman goddess of reconciliation – opens Ruins Decorated. ‘I felt that in the context of South Africa, and what is going on in the world, I wanted to have her as the central figure. A redemptive figure in the current climate we are experiencing’.
‘Nelson Mandela represents a very important figure in history for me, but of course, he had his faults. Without him, the post-apartheid period in South Africa would’ve been a bloody one. If you look at what is going on in Syria right now, SA could have gone the same route. But one figure can’t solve everyone’s problems. Obama, for instance, was held up as a hero, but he is flawed, too. To me, Mandela had a singularly important role in making sure that the country didn’t implode, and he should be celebrated for that.
‘Today, Africa is in constant negotiation with the West. It plays out within South Africa as well, where a lot of Africans have to negotiate between their colonised identity and their indigenous identity – between speaking English, or Afrikaans – or whatever language they speak at home.
‘We live in a very divided world right now, especially with the rise of the right, and I hope this exhibition will raise a debate that we need to have with ourselves.’
Ruins Decorated runs at Goodman Gallery from 1 September to 6 October 2018. Visit goodman-gallery.com for details.