Yinka Shonibare is one of a handful of living black artists, especially black African artists, to have successfully courted world renown and press aplenty. This is arguably because he has been able to infiltrate the aspirational western art world and insert into it subversive themes about their colonial culpability. The trademarks of his practice are instantly recognisable; headless mannequins in wax-print Victorian garb. His work draws historical links between Britain and Africa made all the more incisive as he straddles the two continents.
Shonibare’s exhibition, ‘Trade Winds’, at the Norval Foundation, includes two such sculptural figures, Boy Balancing Knowledge II (2016) and Butterfly Kid (Girl) IV (2017). The youthful figure of the girl tripples playfully, she has a pair of dazzling blue wings and a black globe is mounted in place of her head. On the orb markings of the night sky are dotted with the charming and absurd names of butterflies such as the ‘green veined white’, the ‘ceylon rose’, the ‘yellow brimstone’ and the ‘tropical dotted border’. Curlicues of stylized foliage embellish her dress.
Hurrying in a different direction, Boy Balancing Knowledge II is carrying a teetering tower of books. As he lurches forward, the uppermost folios begin to topple. Julius Caesar and Samuel Pepys have just about taken flight from the top of the pile. His globular head bears the names of still more authors, both historical and contemporary. The youth’s couture is also loaded with signifiers: greek letters, roman numerals, measuring instruments and arabic numbers jostle within riotously geometric patterns.
The pair don’t have the over-the-top ruffles and bustles of Shonibare’s adult figures, but the style is nevertheless distinctly Victorian, chosen because it was the period of British history during which Africa was colonized. They are offspring of the same circumstances yet they reveal opposite attitudes. The girl is hopeful, the boy is beleaguered. She provides levity and butterfly-metaphor-grade potential, While he is encumbered by an outmoded reading-list. The implication is that Africa, and other newly emancipated economies deserve an opportunity to emerge from their cocoons and play a prioritised part in the construction of knowledge-systems going forward.
Beyond the boy and girl is the vibrantly-coloured African Library (2018) which runs the full length of the room. It is a wall of upholstered literature nearly five thousand books strong. Gold lettering gleams on the spines and competes with the gaiety of the binding for legibility. More than a few South Africans found their way into this honorary canon, including writers, academics, activists and the names of our last four presidents.
The sheer scale and unlikeliness of a collection of books devoted to the achievements of Africans awed me. I selected a name I had never seen before and extracted the orange and pink tome. It was a treatise on keeping and grooming pedigree cats. Another was an album of Riverdance photographs and yet another a guide to catering for the holiday season.
The African Library is a fantasy – but it is not entirely false. In fact the books are a physical stand-in for an online index. The information on each person is brief but the list of names makes the point that far greater spirits have come out of Africa than are given due recognition, the brilliant colours of the cloth contrasting with the dull leathery volumes associated with classical libraries.
Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (2008) is a series of five enormous prints modeled after Francisco Goya’s etching of the same name. In each a man poses asleep at a desk surrounded by ghoulish taxidermy. The title is affixed by a continent and the ethnicity of the model does not correspond with the expectation of their assigned place. This undermines the preconception of nationality and race being connected, but the lack of variation between the prints feels tiresome and lazy. These do not demonstrate the same attention to detail as his other works and the eyes of the stuffed owls and wildcats, identical in each print, have the comical frenzied appearance of characters out of the film Labyrinth (so do Goya’s by the way).
A short walk from the gallery, in the sculpture garden, the pigments of Shonibare’s Wind Sculpture (SG) III (2018) blaze bright against the Steenberg Mountain scrub. A fragment of cloth, carried on a jet stream, alights in the vlei. Paint on fiberglass mimics the staining of batik and suggests whorls of peacock feathers.
Yinka Shonibare’s practice in its simplest form is represented by these fabrics because of their cross cultural origins. Dutch Wax fabric which is visually associated with ‘authentic African’ identity, has its origins in Helmond, Holland, in 1846. Batik originated in China and India ten centuries earlier and was later refined in Indonesia. Original Indonesian textiles were a luxury item, but copies produced in Holland fell short of Indonesian standards and due to their flaws, their sale was banned. The cloth was rerouted to the Dutch colony, Ghana. Sarah Rose Sharp writes that:
Between 1855 and 1872, approximately 3,000 Ghanaian soldiers served in the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army. … They purchased bolts of Dutch Wax fabric to take home. By the turn of the century, despite the ceding of the colony to the UK, the sale of Dutch-made faux batik in the Gold Coast was robust. By the 1930s, it was being adapted to suit Ghanian tastes, not by accident, but by design […]
Today, the Vlisco Group has four brands: Vlisco, Woodin, Uniwax, and GTP (Ghana Textiles Printing Company). The latter three are produced in parts of Africa. … To this day, Vlisco’s precise mode of production remains a trade secret, with 27 distinct steps carried out by both machine and hand.
The fabrics provide a metaphor for Shonibare’s own mixed background. And like the sails of ships (see Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle) the cloth finds itself here by virtue of its ability to catch the wind. In an analogous journey to those taken by Dutch Merchants along international trade routes, the artwork connects art institutions and practitioners. Wind Sculpture (SG) III embodies the relationship between identity, artefacts and mobility.
Wax print cloth is present in each of the artworks in Trade Winds. Its insertion urges viewers to not make the assumptions of authenticity and origin based on popular heuristics and common ‘knowledge’.