By Kaler Wong
Rarely do you come across an artist with so many layers of symbolism in their work as the British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare MBE. Born in London, Shonibare moved to Lagos at the age of three experiencing strong colonial influences, not least being taught in English rather than the traditional Nigerian Yoruba language. On his website, Shonibare claims to “explore issues of race and class…[questioning] the meaning of cultural and national definitions.” With a background of two different cultures myself, Shonibare’s work has particular pertinence, especially in racial assumptions and questioning national identity from a multicultural perspective.
At first glance, Shonibare’s sculptures appear fun and playful given the artist’s fondness of rich colours and patterns. On closer study, however, the themes of race, class and colonialism make his work more conceptually engaging and deeply moving. There can be no doubt that the mannequin in CAKE MAN, bent double from the towering weight of luxurious sugar-heavy cakes, is a reference to the horrors and exploitation of African slavery.
In an Artspace interview, Shonibare says his work came out of questioning his ethnic heritage: “One of my tutors said to me, “You’re African. Why aren’t you producing authentic African art?” And I thought, well, what does that actually mean? What’s authentic?
One such stereotype is the batik fabric so characteristic of his acclaimed sculptures. Whereas most people generally associate these textiles with Africa, Shonibare made a compelling discovery: “They’re actually Indonesian fabrics originally produced by the Dutch, [then] introduced to the West African market.” The boundary of authenticity is reduced to a blurred perimeter when viewing Shonibare’s work. Although the fabric is not originally African it has been assimilated into a clichéd African cultural identity; Shonibare urges the viewer to ask the question ‘At what point does it become authentically African?’
Like much of Shonibare’s art, CAKE MAN is not confined to examinations of African stereotypes. A further layer of meaning focuses on materialistic greed following the 2008 global financial crisis. “It’s my tribute to bankers,” said Shonibare in a Guardian interview. “There’s been a lot of talk about bonuses to bankers and the top 1% literally taking all the cake.” The figure’s head, imprinted with a forecast of the global stock market, adds further symbolism of the modern obsession with money and consumer goods.
Crucially, Shonibare doesn’t limit himself to solely examining race issues but breaks free from categorization by scrutinizing global capitalism. As a black artist, he isn’t confined to black issues saying “I don’t disregard tradition, but should an English person make work about Morris dancing?” His figures are representative of greater society; capitalism’s top earners having their cake and eating it.
As a critic of empire one of the most unexpected actions by Shonibare was his acceptance of an MBE in 2005 and decision to permanently affix it to the end of his name. Other black artists, such as the poet Benjamin Zephaniah, unequivocally reject such honours citing anti-imperialist beliefs, yet Shonibare justifies it as quasi-ironic. We must be wary, therefore, of the fact that there is no one person who can encapsulate the multitude of African histories. Nevertheless, Shonibare powerfully shows how he can focus on complex themes of identity, nationality, African authenticity and global capitalism. Layers of symbolism indeed.
Main photograph: YSPsculpture via Creative Commons and Flickr
Both photographs: B via Creative Commons and Flickr