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