Magazine article New African

Without Their Heads ... Definitely!

Magazine article New African

Without Their Heads ... Definitely!

Article excerpt

Yinka Shonibare is arguably the best-known artist of African descent in Britain. A Nigerian by birth, his work has thrilled many art lovers worldwide for the past two decades. His latest exhibition, named after him, Yinka Shonibare MBE, opened in Australia in late last year to much acclaim and moved to the USA at the end of February 2009. It is by far his most comprehensive exhibition to date, encompassing works from 1996 to the present across the media of painting, sculpture, photography and film. Here, Osei Boateng takes a critical look at the man, his magnificent work, and the excellent book published by Prestel to accompany the current exhibition.

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Yinka Shonibare's work speaks volumes. His exquisite sculptures, made of full-sized fibreglass, make quite an impression, having no heads (an influence from the French Revolution when the aristocrats were beheaded), and also because some of his subjects could not have done the things they did if they had had heads like all thinking human beings constrained by rational thoughts.

Take for example, his representation of the "Scramble for Africa" (1884-85). He has 14 headless supposed gentlemen sitting around a huge conference table with a contested map of Africa on it, debating (or is it quarrelling among themselves?) how to carve up the continent to suit their national interests, without as much as asking the Africans a word what they thought about the arbitrary dismemberment of their homeland.

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The "gentlemen" (if indeed they were gentlemen) are dressed in exquisite European-style clothes made from "African" wax prints manufactured in the Netherlands and Britain. The irony here is that the wax prints are only African in name as the European companies making them do not employ any Africans at all--neither designers nor simple workers, creating a misleading perception.

Gentlemen (with heads) constrained by rational thoughts would not sit in a European capital and carve up somebody else's homeland for their own sake without even thinking about the repercussions for the people involved.

The irrationality of this exercise in fact happened in 1884-85, when a group of European powers, egged on by King Leopold II of Belgium, whose undying desire was to own a piece of foreign territory, met in Berlin to arbitrarily divide up the continent of Africa for their own selfish interests. According to Shonibare, his Scramble for Africa masterpiece, "examines how history repeats itself and when I was making it [in 2003], I was really thinking about American imperialism [a la Iraq] and the need in the West for resources such as oil and how this preempts the annexation of different parts of the world ... [My] Scramble for Africa is about people having a conference about a continent that was not theirs and deciding how they were going to divide it up without any form of consultation with those who would be most affected--the Africans."

Shonibare is an artist of great profundity, but the Scramble for Africa occupies a special place in his repertoire, such that Rachel Kent, the senior curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Australia, where Shonibare's latest exhibition opened late last year, makes the telling point that it "is a pivotal work for Shonibare in its exploration of late Victorian England and its territorial expansion into Africa".

Kent quotes A. N. Wilson (the English writer, known for his critical biographies, novels and works of popular and cultural history), to buttress her already remarkable point: "It has been observed," Wilson wrote, "by one of [Britain's] liveliest historians that 'the scramble for Africa' bewildered everyone, from the humblest African peasant to the master statesmen of the age, Lord Salisbury [British] and Prince Bismarck [German]'. In a speech in May 1886, Salisbury stated that when he left the Foreign Office in 1880 'nobody thought about Africa', but when he returned to it five years later, 'the nations of Europe were almost quarrelling with each other as to the various portions of Africa which they could obtain. …

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