An alcove-like room in the Yale Center for British Art houses photographs, costumes, and sculptures by the Nigerian British Artist Yinka Shonibare. Shonibare’s work at large explores the themes of cultural and national identity in a world affected by colonialism. The pieces in this exhibition are no exception. While the work is centered on the life and death of Admiral Nelson, a British flag officer in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, Shonibare’s choice of materials and colors reimagines the subject matter in a tribute to West African artistic traditions.
One of the most striking pieces is the maquette for Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, a sculpture that was exhibited in London’s Trafalgar Square from 2010 to 2012. The work in part celebrates Nelson’s legacy; it is a model of the HMS Victory, the Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar. But Shonibare uses his signature batik fabric for the sails, thereby recognizing, within his homage to Nelson, Africa’s history in colonial commerce.
The rest of the displayed works can be seen as parodies of typical Western motifs: Shonibare reimagines acclaimed Western artworks in a manner that incorporates African artistic elements. Self-Portrait (After Warhol) 2 is a clear example. Directly mirroring Warhol’s Camouflage Self-Portrait, Shonibare replaces the pop artist’s figure with his own. The key elements of Warhol’s aesthetic persona are replicated in a novel manner. The spikes of the pop artist’s wig, for instance, are replaced with Shonibare’s messily arranged dreadlocks. The piece manifests the double identity of Shonibare, who was born in London in 1962 but spent his childhood in Lagos, Nigeria.
In another piece, the first in the series The Death of Chatterton – Henry Wallis, whose source work is also on display at the YCBA, a lifeless body, clad in patterned fabrics and neon orange stockings, sprawls across a bed. One can’t help but notice the constructed nature of the scene, and the dissonance of having these two intersecting cultures in a period artificially early in art history. (Nelson’s death was in 1802 while British colonization of Africa only commenced at the end of the 19th century.) This is perhaps the exact reaction that Shonibare wished to elicit in his audience: one of amusement but also of intrigue regarding how easily “famous” works of art, or notable historic events, can be personalized and adapted to include a broader global-historical context.
Viewing the Shonibare exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art is an exercise in examining cross-cultural history. The works are a cry for the acknowledgment of colonialism as a significant influence on the threading of British political and artistic history. They are a cry for the representation of historically colonized cultures in what is today deemed “Western art.”
To complement the exhibition, the event “A Conversation with Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA)” has been organized by the Center and Yale University Art Gallery. It will take place on Tuesday, Oct. 25 at 5:30 p.m. in the Robert L. McNeil Jr. Lecture Hall, Yale University Art Gallery, with a reception to follow at the Center.