The Story of Vlisco fabric represents a salacious cultural quandary. While typically associated with African liberation and identity, it is based on the Indonesian wax batik technique that was copied by the Dutch and sold to its African colonies. Evoking issues of cultural authenticity, appropriation, globalisation, and power relations, the brightly coloured cloth is a potent artistic metaphor. Ask Yinka Shonibare MBE, for whom it has become a trademark. The British-Nigerian artist has applied Vlisco to an entire library of books, a Victorian lounge, aliens, astronauts, and even his own self-portrait. The result is a darkly humorous, sometimes perverse, but always colourfully palatable body of work.

It blew us away when we first came across it, shortly after Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11 in 2002 featured his exhibition of headless figures sodomising each oth- er in Victorian costumes made of Vlisco. That was a time when Enwezor, Shonibare, and David Adjaye’s names were often conjured alongside the voguish term Afropolitan, used to describe a new generation of cosmopolitan Africans who had begun to receive acclaim in the global cultural scene. Sophisticated urban Afro-politans were heralded as challenging the stereotype of poverty-stricken rural Africans. Yet, how has Shonibare managed to sustain a career of over 30 years based on a single brilliant visual metaphor? This was on the author's mind as she set out to see his retrospective at the Helmond Museum on the occasion of Vlisco’s 170th anniversary. The irony of being a South African having to come all the way to the Netherlands to catch a 10-minute train to the home of African fabrics was not lost on her. Identity is itself encapsulated by the Vlisco metaphor.

Cannonball Heaven, 2011 Two life-sized mannequins, Dutch wax-printed cotton, leather boots, 600 foam balls, fiberglass reproduction cannon / Dimensions variable Commissioned by La Comunidad de Madrid for the exhibition Yinka Shonibare MBE at Sala Alcalá 31, Madrid Courtesy of Yinka Shonibare and Stephen Friedman Gallery London
Maybe this is what makes the metaphor so timeless, that it applies to every person in some way. While the fabric visually and narratively suggests Africa, there is a similar story about Indian chintz; and when two societies come into contact, there’s always some form of asymmetrical cultural exchange that takes place. When applied to the Adam and Eve scene of poisoned knowledge or a pursuit between lovers, Vlisco evokes the universal dangers of greed and overindulgence at the expense of others. “Inherent in the metaphor is Vlisco’s own self-critique”, says Shonibare cryptically, over the phone.

The questions raised concerning power, dominant narratives, and exploitation, are also indicative of the art world itself. Shonibare has a whole body of work referencing historical artworks and ideas, including a series of famous death paintings with Lord Nelson replacing the deceased. Opening the exhibition is a self-portrait of Shonibare in the style of Andy Warhol, which hints at how the artist has shaped his personal circumstances around art history. During his first year of study, a severe spinal cord inflammation left him partially disabled. After returning to art school the following year his practice became more conceptual, with assistants to facilitate the physical making of works – a way of working first popularised in contemporary art by Warhol. Initially, Shonibare seemed unconvinced about this theory that the matrix of power inherent in the Vlisco metaphor might apply to more than Africa. He did, however, concede that his current show in New York might instigate a new reading of his classic Diary of a Victorian Dandy, given the US’s fascist atmosphere. Nonetheless, it was not for him to say.

End of Empire, 2016 Fibreglass mannequins, Dutch wax printed cotton textile, metal, wood, motor, globes, and leather / 296 x 510 x 99 cm © Yinka Shonibare / Stephen Friedman Gallery, London / Co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW and Turner Contemporary, Margate Royal Palaces, Kensington Palace / Photo: Stephen White
“I don’t think it’s the role of the artist to take fixed positions, otherwise it is replicating the fascism. Art should be a place where contradictions can be explored”, he proclaims. This recalls Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe’s convivial chaos of the postcolony, in which oppressor and victim co-exist, even interchange, and this non-binary power relation creates a dynamic that facilitates diverse personal identities. Rather than taking positions, Shonibare offers alternatives. Such as the Guest Projects residency he has es- tablished in the extra space of his studio building. The intention is to offer a place outside of the commercial gallery context for young artists to make experimental work and develop new forms of artistic knowledge. “I was picked up by Saatchi while in a disused factory”, Shonibare informs, explaining that when he graduated – at around the same time as Damien Hirst and the other YBAs – everyone was exhibiting in vacant industrial spaces in London. Now, with the real estate crisis, there’s nowhere to explore and push the boundaries without commercial pressure.

YINKA SHONIBARE MBE: PREJUDICE AT HOME: A PARLOUR, A LIBRARY, AND A ROOM. James Cohan Gallery New York

Mrs Pinckney and the Emancipated Birds of South Carolina, 2017 Fibreglass mannequin, Dutch wax-printed cotton textile, bird cage, birds, leather, and globe / 246 x 115 x 134 cm © Yinka Shonibare / DACS, London / Courtesy of James Cohan Gallery, New York / Co-commissioned by Yale Center for British Art and Historic Royal Palaces, Kensington Palace / Photo: Stephen White
Refugee Astronaut, 2015 Fibreglass mannequin, Dutch wax-printed cotton textile, net, possessions, astronaut helmet, moon boots, steel base plate 208 x 93 x 90 cm Courtesy of Yinka Shonibare and James Cohan Gallery, New York and Shanghai Photo: Stephen White
This article appeared in DAM61. Order your personal copy.
Cannonball Heaven (costume detail), 2011