Yinka Shonibare: ‘I am as free as Picasso’

Yinka Shonibare's 'Ship in a bottle'. Photo from: Andy Field (Hubmedia) (flickr)

Last year, London-based Nigerian artist, Yinka Shonibare, Member of the British Empire (MBE) unveiled a scale model of Nelson’s ship HMS Victory in a bottle at Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square.  He spoke on his 30-year sojourn in the UK, his belief in African culture and his dream for Nigerian artists, among other issues, at a lecture in Lagos. Assistant Editor (Arts) OZOLUA UHAKHEME was there.
 
AFTER 30 years sojourn in the UK, internationally acclaimed Nigerian artist, Yinka Shonibare returned home to a warm reception by his kinsmen and professional colleagues last Wednesday in Lagos. The event was the Articulate lectures series organised by Bisi Silva’s Centre for Contemporary Arts, Lagos at the Terra Kulture, Victoria Island, Lagos.
 
With nostalgic feelings, he poured out his heart sharing his decades of artistic practice in the UK and used slides to illustrate the presentation that was laced with conviviality. E ku role, Eku joko; he greeted the audience, including his elated aged mother, Mrs. Shonibare, who was flanked by other relations. Expectedly, he acknowledged the assistance of Prof. Grillo Yusuf who he sought his advice before travelling, saying: “Thanks for having me. I have not been here for 30 years. I managed to build a career for myself.”
 
From his old works such as Deep Blue, to Double Dutch, Diary of a Victorian Dandy, Vacation, Alien obsessive-Man, Dad and the Kid, The Swing, Black Gold, How to blow up two heads at once, The crowning, The confession and Nelson’s ship in a bottle, Shonibare unveiled for the first time the diverse content of his collection to the expectant local audience. In fact, his talks and works were in consonant with the contextual underpinnings of his collection-global politics, freedom, colonialism, identity and culture.
 
Despite the long years of his stay in the UK, the artist who feels at home speaking in his local language, Yoruba, still believes strongly about the sanctity and relevance of his roots. And he sees art as a potent tool of propaganda, which he said, is being used by the West. “America at a time used art to challenge Russia during the Cold War. Art is very powerful in the West and the government used it as a tool of propaganda. Adolf Hitler thought modern artists were mad men and rebellious,” he said.
 
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Shonibare paints mostly on Ankara fabrics, which is common among Africans. The choice of Ankara, he said, is a means to reassert his African identity among the Europeans. “I decided to paint on Ankara fabrics as my own way of reasserting my identity, which is, however, a mixture of culture. But I am a Lagosian…… In my works, I could have painted like any Briton, but I have to speak my mind… I am doing my own revolution. When I first got to England, I was very interested in global politics, so I started doing works that challenge the system,” he recalled, adding that he is not different from people on the streets carrying on campaigns for revolution.
 
He described artists as more serious political animals who are concerned with the goings on in the society, but expressed their feelings through media. At the college, a teacher once asked him why he was not doing authentic African art?  He replied, saying, ‘I am a modern man,’ stressing that in Europe, there is an expectation and they feel Africans are primitive. At that period, people were no longer talking about modernism and the big museums were showing only the big artists at the detriment of non-Europeans and women. Driven by the fight against colonialism, a post-colonialsm movement, comprising those wanting to empower the colonised, emerged. 
 

Yinka Shonibare "Nelson's Ship in a Bottle", Press Launch, Fourth Plinth, London. Photo from: daisybush (flickr)

He recalled that instead of showing his work, Diary of A Dandy, in a gallery, he took it an underground station into interrogation and challenge the people. He said though his works are very critical of the society, but are never aggressive because there is a lot of humour in them. He cited How to blow up two heads at once to show that no man wins a war as both parties are losers.
 
Reacting to the absence of his works in collections of Nigerian art collectors, Shonibare said it is unfortunate that Chris Ofili and he are hundred per cent collected by Europeans, lamenting that “it is our heritage that we are losing to them.”
 
“Art collecting in America and Europe is a legacy for the people. My works in their collection can’t find their way to Nigeria. And I can’t divulge the figures about my works. Lots of museums collect my works in the ratio of private 60 per cent and public 40 percent. I do collect myself. I remember buying a painting from a German artist for 5,000 pounds, which I later sold for 70,000 pounds.
 
Beyond, the use of Ankara fabrics, observers wondered why his works are not reflecting enough of African culture. “I am free like Picasso and we are all global. My work is not about representation but the politics of representation. I am not using fabric to represent Africanism. Unfortunately, the legacy of colonialism is everywhere in the country.” 
 
His dream for Nigerian art and artists is for Lagos to have a befitting museum that will raise the quality and standard of art practice in the country. The content of my work is a continuum of global art,” he explained. Present at the lecture were artists, collectors, gallery owners, student artists and admirers that included Prince Yemisi Shyllon, Prof. Yusuf Grillo, Chief Joe Musa, Emeka Udemba, Olu Amoda, Ndidi Dike, Mrs. Bolanle Austin-Peters, Wale Shonibare and Dr. Demola Azeez. 
 
Shonibare was born in London and moved to Lagos, at the age of three. He returned to London to study Fine Art, first at Byam Shaw College of Art (now Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design) and later at Goldsmiths College, where he received his MFA – graduating as part of the ‘Young British Artists’ generation. Shonibare has become well known for his exploration of colonial and post-colonial themes.
 
His work explores these issues through the media of painting, sculpture, photography and, more recently, film and performance. With this wide range of media, Shonibare examines in particular the construction of identity and the tangled interrelationship between Africa and Europe. Having described himself as a ‘post-colonial’ hybrid, he questions the meaning of cultural and national definitions.
 
In 2004, Shonibare was shortlisted for the Turner Prize and in 2009, he won a commission for the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square, for which he unveiled in 2010 a scale model of Nelson’s ship HMS Victory in a bottle. He has exhibited at the Venice Biennial and internationally at leading museums worldwide.
 
Ozolua Uhakheme

This piece was written by Ozolua Uhakheme and published in THE NATION, on April 27. It can be found on the paper’s web: www.thenationonlineng.net

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