Sunday, November 26, 2006

Yinka Shonibare and the artist's freedom

Yinka Shonibare, Scramble for Africa (2003)

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).

What happens to the freedom of the artist? What freedom does the artist have? Will we ever know of Shonibare's landscape sketches? And more broadly: how does an artist deal with the fact that many of his better ideas might not actually be better as seen from a social/market perspective, while some of his simpler, more obvious ideas are caught on and bought on the spot? How many more African-dressed figures does Shonibare need to make? How many can he handle? Isn't this exactly the same branding phenomenon as in other areas of commerce? Can we still call this investigation and digging in? How often do we see an artist still digging many, many exhibitions later, when he really shouldn't? I believe Louise Bourgeois said about Francis Bacon that it is true that he always paints the same painting, but it's a very beautiful painting.

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)


Anonymous said...

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Jessica Torrant said...

I am thrilled to have come across your sophisticated art blog this evening. Thanks for your great images and thoughts.

Anonymous said...

nice blogsite and I love the work of Yinka Shonibare check out

Anonymous said...

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SAMIT ROY said...

Great works!! Liked them a lot!

Anonymous said...

I'm just dealing with the issue of artist's freedom and how he/she functions within the art establishment and the contemporary world...And how this functioning relates to the ethics...It's actually one of the most difficult dilemma to solve - if you self-aware, not naive, you'll - sooner or later - start asking yourself: "How I'm going to function as an artist? - Will I just sell myself or will I wait patiently until a wise critic/art administrator visits my studio and asks me to "go out"?" "Do I have to know "certain" people to exist in today's art market at all?" "How quickly my work will become a commodity just like anything else - and - Will I care?" These questions trouble me a lot...Thanks for asking about an artist's freedom

Anonymous said...

i wouldn't call it sophisticated saying that YS's artworks have no real cultural meaning; because they do and he states that in several interviews. he looks at dual nationality; questioning power, nationality and identity. he does this playfully to stimulate our (the audiences) response. yes some of his works may be based on appropriations of past artworks he likes but they still have meaning about changing contexts and identities...

Anonymous said...

The type of cloth they use, called batik, is used throughout Africa (and not only)

...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.

And as Mr. Shonibare has also poited out, the origin of batik is Indonesia, once more removed from 'authentic' Africa.

Raj Khadka

Sarkis said...

I agree with what you imply: that this obsession with extreme open-referentiality to Africa and colonialism in his work undermines any true creative power/messages that may come about. He's only slightly critical...That's just one way the art market works though...see Suhail Malik's essay "Critique as Alibi" (

good blog post. I've just finished a research essay on Shonibare and I'm about to add another post about him to my blog. Please do have a look when you are able to :)


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