Yinka Shonibare: Studio Museum in Harlem, New York. (Reviews)

By Weinstein, Jeff | Artforum International, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Yinka Shonibare: Studio Museum in Harlem, New York. (Reviews)


Weinstein, Jeff, Artforum International


A perceptive New York dealer I needn't name once called a prolific artist I shouldn't name "too smart to be an artist." Words, like pictures, can lie, but indications are that Yinka Shonibare and his art are equally and exceedingly smart. Shonibare is that rarity whose stated intentions and lucid analyses actually correspond to and enrich the work on view. All that's left, it appears, for his increasingly numerous commentators to do is recount the artist's dual background--he was born and educated in London, where he is based, but raised in Lagos--and describe the painting suites, installations, sculpture, and narrative photo series in redolent detail.

Yet smart art doesn't merely toe its creator's line, for it can never be so programmatic as motive and theory would determine. A magnetic sampling of Shonibare's work at the Studio Museum in Harlem and one potent piece in P.S. 1's anthological "The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945-1994" are summary and springboard for anyone interested in how art supposedly about identity refuses to stand still for the camera.

With the exception of Double Dutch, 1994, an early wall-mounted grid of fifty small acrylic-on-textile panels, and the 1998 photo series "Diary of a Victorian Dandy," exhibited originally as posters in the London Underground, the Studio Museum show concentrated on Shonibare's reputation-making sculpture of Western period clothing made of "African" fabric, most set on dressmaker's dummies or headless mannequins. Shonibare has indicated that he wishes to make work with crossover appeal, and with these costume pieces he seems to have succeeded. The bumptious hues and splendid patterns of both the everyday and more expensive Dutch wax-printed cottons, heightened and brightened in a gallery context, startle the eye. A "disparity" response follows almost immediately: These fabrics usually associated with black-African cultures are cut, marched, and sewn into eighteenth-and nineteenth-century raiment that looks storybook European. Titles confirm the impression: Victorian Couple, 19th Century Kid (Charles Dickens), 1 9th Century Kid (Charlotte Bronte).

Yet this is not, as I heard one art-worlder say, "one-joke art." If it appears so, the joke is on us, because history quickly unravels any impression of a simple hybrid. Nineteenth-century photographs of black-African middle-class urban-dwellers (there were not many) show women and men dressed in local versions of European fashions, in the same sweltering bombazine and shot silk as their European colonial "neighbors." So, too, did Victorian fashion at home eagerly accommodate the spoils of conquered countries--many an India-based colonel gratified his London wife with a Kashmir Paisley wool shawl. The so-called African fabrics themselves sport a worldwide genealogy: Dutch-originated for a tepid Indonesian market and later produced in Manchester, England, by Asian workers for West Africa, they epitomize the common modern fracture between the appearance and fact of material identity. African fabric not from Africa is sewn to mimic Western fashion that is not just Western and shown on headless bodies that claim no race at all. …

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