The key characteristic of Yinka Shonibare’s work is his use of Dutch wax fabric. Based on Indonesian batik fabrics but manufactured in Europe by the Dutch, who then exported it to West Africa when it failed to catch on in the Netherlands, and bought by Shonibare from Brixton market in London, the fabric has connotations of colonialism, post-colonialism and the movement of cultures thereby engendered and of the multi-culturalism of contemporary London. Thus it neatly connects the different aspects Shonibare’s own background as a British-born, Nigerian-raised Londoner and has allowed him to build a practice that is simultaneously coherent and diverse and both serious and playful. These complexities and contradictions are reinforced by Shonibare’s adoption of the letters MBE after his name when he was given the honour in 2005: an artist whose work could be seen as commenting on empire accepted and uses an honour that makes him a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.
It’s not surprising then the work in Shonibare’s exhibition Addio del Passato at James Cohan Gallery is by turns beautiful and fascinating and very, very funny. Equally unsurprising perhaps is that the work I especially want to write about is all of these things. And also really rather rude…
The familiar forms are here: Victorian costume made from Dutch wax fabrics, staged photographs that reference historical paintings and a film work I wish I’d been able to spend longer with. Shonibare’s fascination with the Victorian era, present throughout, is particularly evident in a small space at the front of the gallery containing three sculptural works. These works deal with ideas around sex, sexuality and fetish but also, in one case, with mechanisation, the age of steam and nineteenth and early twentieth century approaches to curing hysteria.
Anti-Hysteria Device, a thrusting, steam-powered Dutch-wax covered dildo which gets faster and faster until the pressure is released in what amounts to a mechanical orgasm references attitudes to hysteria – anxiety and neuroses in women had long been seen as related to the womb – and its treatment through pelvic/genital massage which by the late Victorial era was increasingly becoming a mechanised process.
The work is both visually pleasing and funny and it’s fascinating to watch, albeit with the potential to cause embarrassment as strangers realise quite what they are watching in front of others. And as if Anti-Hysteria Device alone wasn’t quite enough, its explicit nature is reinforced by the two other works that share the space: Anti-Masturbation Device and Fetish Boots.
The works are in a space close to the entrance – and, I think, visible from the street – meaning that looking at Anti-Hysteria Device the artist’s name can be seen on the wall by the reception desk. In this context, Shonibare’s decision to use MBE as part of his professional name made me smile. I’m not sure Members of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire are meant to exhibit fetish boots and steam powered sex machines in public.