February 2012: Yinka Shonibare MBE the Whitehot Interview
Yinka Shonibare: Addio Del Passato
Shana Beth Mason: How did this exhibition originate? When did the timeline (for planning, design, production and execution) begin?
Shonibare: Exactly. Having the Nelson character as a metaphor, really. It’s a more allegorical use. I was thinking about the theatricality of death in painting, art historically. I wanted to show the demise of this figure, staged. I’m trying to use history, itself, as a metaphor for what’s actually happening in the present.
Mason: The majority of your work is fashioned from the physical and metaphysical properties of the 17th Century; is this, for you, the culmination of ‘British-ness’?
Shonibare: It’s almost a fetishization of history: it’s art, it’s fiction, it’s artifice. Art is not reality. The theatricality is used in this kind of Victoriana.
Mason: Tell me more about the film Addio Del Passato. How, in translation, are ‘Fanny’ Nisbet’s emotional complexities addressed (besides the obvious physical gestures)?
Shonibare: In a way, it’s more a general sense of betrayal. But it’s also about loss, as well. It’s very difficult for me to grasp at the moment: there’s a sense of sadness.
Mason: Of melancholy.
Shonibare: Yes. I read the papers, and I’m particularly concerned with the level of sadness around. It’s not something I’ve ever experienced in my lifetime. At the end of La Traviata, she’s dying of tuberculosis. She sings this very sorrowful aria, but it’s also very moving. That opera is about trying to capture a bit of the zeitgeist (which I can’t really put my finger on), but I certainly know that music is an abstract thing. There’s a sense of which you can experience the emotion of it without necessarily being able to explain language. I felt that was a medium that would capture the emotion of my work.
Mason: In another part of the show, there are these outlandish, antiquated sex objects: what are they?
Shonibare: That part of the show is my adding wit to that. The show is already very dark, but there’s a degree of humor I wanted to add. They’re also about sexual repression, as well. You’ve got the ‘hysteria machine’, which is basically a vibrating dildo, if you’d like. It’s a fetishistic sexual thing, but could also be about power relations: when women were deemed to be ‘mentally ill’, they felt that that kind of ‘masturbation machine’ would release the tension. The object mechanically moves and whistles. It is quite funny, and I’ve got some fetishistic boots, as well. Also, the ‘anti-masturbation’ codpiece. Sexuality can be used as a form of power over people. There’s a serious and playful side, slightly whimsical side, to the exhibition. It’s necessary since I feel the show is quite dark, it needed some sort of release.
Mason: What do you think has been the greatest shift in your practice within the last five years? Are you foreseeing any major changes ahead?
Shonibare: Absolutely. I think the greatest shift, at the moment, is maximizing my audience by actually going outside like the ship in a bottle in Trafalgar Square. As you know, millions of people experienced that on a daily basis. I’m developing some new work now, these fabrics blowing in the wind. They’re quite elegant with lots of movement, very colorful. Those are designed for public spaces. I’ve been very excited by the Trafalgar Square experience: the scale of the audience, the scale of feedback is much bigger than showing your work inside a gallery.
Mason: To finish on a more spontaneous note: tell me something that made you laugh this past week.
Shonibare: [Laughs] That’s funny. I don’t have a sense of humor, I don’t think anything’s made me laugh this week.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief