The Image of Yinka Shonibare MBE

The Swing (after Fragonard), 2001

The Swing (after Fragonard), 2001 by Yinka Shonibare, MBE

On Saturday night at the reception party of Yinka Shonibare MBE’s exhibition, if someone accidentally walked into the the new Cantor Auditorium of the Brooklyn Museum when the artists arrived, he may have thought he just stumbled upon a play. Yinka stepped onto the stage with the help of two Victorian addressed ladies. Both dressed in light colors (one creamrose pearl and one light baby blue).  The two ladies have no role in the artist talk except assisting the physically disabled artist to walk , but it summarizes the essence of Yinka Shonibare’s art: meticulous staged setting and articulated composition that fabricate the heights of dramas.

If one understands this, he would not be disappointed to find out that Yinka didn’t really say anything unknown from media coverage. His art is of layers of ambiguous statements disguised under Victorian dandies dressed in near-exotic decorative fabrics. It is not truly Victorian as I would argue in the end of this article, nor African (at least not classical or traditional). In fact, the delicate shoe kicked off in the air in one installation is no different from Murakami’s boy spring of masturbated sperm, just slightly restrained: The world of Yinka’s art is a hallucination of the past, a convincing artificiality based on transformation of political ideologies and concepts and a mixture of different cultural elements which appeals to the 21th intellectuals. To inquire the personal reflection of his art or even to pry on his views on the art world means to strip off the ambiguity and multi-layer and expose the vulnerability of artists of his generation: mastery concepts overcoming a lack of mastery craftsmanship.

The talk was not all boring. Yinka pointed out that during the early 80’s only high arts would be reviewed and no one in art school would think of decorative arts. And even though he himself has, to the maximum degree, explored the bi-cultural of Colonial Africa, he claimed that there has been too much emphasis on the dual-identity of his works and he wanted people to see with aesthetic eyes.

Major medias  interpret Yinka’s work as a reflection of the subjugated culture under dominant political power. But I feel the opposite: at least in the current exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, it is an Oscar Wilde’s Victorian Dandyism with a tint of African exoticism. Yinka referred to the French guillotine when one lady in the audience asked him why all mannequins are headless. But in my mind, by cutting off the head, from which the race should be told with certainty, he cleverly avoids giving the clues of WHO are at the scene and instead forces the viewers to look at WHAT is happening. (Probably not accidentally, he chose both a black and a white lady to accompany him to the stage.)

Yet I would certainly fail to describe what is happening in every installation here. There are too many threads of information tangled together for each installation yet little can be stratified with certain after long observation. Probably the best proposition to start with is to imagine to sit in the dress and participate in the scenes. That allows the eyes to focus on the details of the fabric patterns, the contrasts of colors within the suits and between the suits.

The guest speaker Dr. Anthony Downey discussed the period setting of his works. This intrigued me because Victorian is a period when the restraint in the personal or emotional aspects of lives is somehow mitigated by a more eclectic and exotic tastes in decorative arts. But neither the upper class with shallow customs in Edith Wharton’s novel, nor the intellectual bourgeoisie in the stories of E.M. Foster would enable to bring interesting forms and movements in the mannequins. It is hard to know whether it is Wilde’s works influenced Yinka or the overtone of sensuality and pleasure in the artworks find its echos in Wilde’s personal life; nevertheless the decadent and mannered 19th century aesthetics becomes a ligitimate and appropriate prop here. And perhaps, with all historical and geographical references, all Yinka wants to say is “Art for art’s sake”.

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Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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