Sailing nowhere

Yinka Shonibare, Nelson's Ship in a Bottle, 2010

Yinka Shonibare MBE, Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, 2010

Vehicles? Mention of the fourth plinth? Those who have been paying attention could probably have predicted Yinka Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle as the subject of my next post. And here it is. (Those now thinking the next one will be about Elmgreen and Dragset’s haven’t been paying attention quite long enough though; I’ve written about that already.) I’ve liked quite a few of the works commissioned for the fourth plinth – the plinth in the North West corner of Trafalgar Square in London originally intended to host some general or other on a horse, I think – but Sonibare’s is definitely one of the ones that I enjoyed the most. It’s the sort of work I couldn’t resist going to have another look at when I was nearby, the sort of work that unfailingly made me smile even on the greyest day.

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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.

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Like a sex machine

Yinka Shonibare MBE, Addio del Passato at James Cohan Gallery

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…

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