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Yinka Shonibare MBE

Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA)


23 Sep 2008 to 01 Feb 2009

Curator: Rachel Kent

about the exhibition

British-born, Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare MBE (born in 1962) works across diverse artistic media to explore ideas about African contemporary identity and the legacy of European colonialism in the present. Shonibare’s art considers social class and aesthetics and is characterised by the use of recurring visual symbols such as ‘Dutch wax’ fabric, since the mid 1990s. This exhibition, his first major survey in Australia, presented twelve years of the artist’s career, encompassing painting, sculpture, large-scale mixed media installations, photography and film.

Originally introduced in place of canvas for Shonibare’s paintings, Dutch wax fabric is rich with meaning for the artist. Inspired by Indonesian batiks, and produced in Europe for the West African market in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it came to symbolise for Shonibare the complex web of economic and racial interactions – and interdependencies – between Europe, Asia and Africa.

Shonibare’s sculptural works often feature headless mannequins clothed in elaborate costumes from the period just before the French Revolution, when the European aristocracy controlled vast wealth, land and power. Referencing art history and the paintings of Jean-Honoré Fragonard in particular, with their depictions of luxury and privilege, Shonibare’s sculptural tableaux portray idyllic, romanticised narratives, as well as imagined scenarios of sexual decadence and violence.

Shonibare created two major suites of photographs alongside his paintings and sculptures, drawing inspiration from Oscar Wilde’s literary creation Dorian Gray, and the idea of the Victorian social aspirant or ‘dandy’. In both instances Shonibare took on the role of the central character, emulating their poses and attire. A third, more recent series focused on the eighteenth-century Enlightenment era and ideas about rationality versus irrationality.

Shonibare expanded his focus to embrace the moving image, creating vast, cinematic tableaux of sumptuous colour and heightened drama. In Un Ballo in Maschera Shonibare recreated, with elaborate Dutch wax ballgowns and frock coats, the late eighteenth-century masked ball in which Swedish King Gustav III was assassinated. His most recent film in this exhibition featured two ballerinas inspired by Swan Lake who faced each other on either side of a gilded frame and moved in unison, as though reflected in single form before a vast mirror.

Shonibare was awarded a Member of Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2005, an award which he accepted with some irony, given the critical focus of his work for over a decade. He has chosen to adopt this title at all times, using it as his ‘platform’ from which to explore further the colonial legacy, class structure and social justice issues that remain in the country he calls his home.

An MCA International Touring exhibition:

  • Auckland Art Gallery, New Zealand: 28 Feb – 27 May 2009
  • Brooklyn Museum, USA: 26 Jun – 20 Sep 2009
  • National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, USA: 11 Nov 2009 – 7 Mar 2010

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