Costume drama

Yonka Shonibare, Diary of a Victorian Dandy: 11.00 Hours, 1998

For Yinka Shonibare, Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress was a starting point for an exploration of art history and the representation of black people rather than something to be reworked for a new time. And with a fascination with the Victorian era, Shonibare chose to change both the narrative and the period in which it’s set, creating a series of photographs called Diary of a Victorian Dandy, made over a period of three days at a stately home in Herefordshire. And though Hogarth’s series is a clear inspiration, the story of Shonibare’s dandy is told in five scenes seemingly taking place in a 24 hour period and each titled with just the time of day. The dandy – played by the artist – rises late. He is attended by many servants; contrary to the narrative we see played out across the history of Western painting, it is the dandy who is black rather than one of the servants who seem to dote on him.

Diary of a Victorian Dandy: 14.00 Hours

Shonibare’s character has clearly achieved high social status and enjoys the trappings of money and his position. He holds court, standing proud and enjoying the applause of his friends. Interestingly in the 14.00 Hours picture, the character in the foreground as also out of place in terms of our expectations of Victorian polite society, though the idea is familiar from literature; wearing a man’s suit and sporting generous whiskers, the figure looks a lot like a woman posing as a man.

Diary of a Victorian Dandy: 17.00 Hours

Played out as a series of tableaux, the work does more than challenge our understanding of the history of painting and the representation of black people. In offering a narrative of a monied class pursuing what looks to be a somewhat dissolute life of leisure, Shonibare is bringing an aspect of Victorian society to life in an engaging way. These are pictures that can be read in different ways; the narrative is open to interpretation and in working out what might be going on we inevitably consider what we know of Victorian society – and of the British Empire – not just from the history of painting but also from half-remembered school history lessons and fictional sources such as books and films and, of course, from the costume dramas that often seem to dominate the prime time television schedules.

Diary of a Victorian Dandy: 21.00 Hours

And of course, in terms of Yinka Shoniare’s work (which I’ve written about here before) there’s one very striking omission from these images: there’s not a scrap of Dutch wax fabric in sight.

Diary of a Victorian Dandy: 03.00 Hours

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