Yinka Shonibare: Addio Del Passato
James Cohan Gallery
February 16th - March 24th
With a rigorous practice spanning nearly two decades and every conceivable visual medium, British-born Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare MBE is, arguably, best known for his fanciful wax-printed fabrics (fashioned in 17th and 18th century British aristocratic costume over headless, life-size mannequins) loudly reflecting an invented, hybridized vision of his African heritage and its complex political and socio-economic histories. Shonibare’s upcoming solo presentation at James Cohan Gallery, called Addio del passato (so closes my sad story), will include contemporary re-imagined ‘death’ paintings torn from the Classic art history timeline, antique sex objects vacillating between fetishist toys and repressive tools, and a film presenting a black actress in the role of Francis Nisbet, the jilted wife of British naval hero Lord Nelson, singing her woes through the final aria, Addio del passato, of Verdi’s opera La Traviata. Whitehot was graciously granted a Skype interview with Shonibare, who will soon travel from London to New York in advance of his opening.
Shana Beth Mason: How did this exhibition originate? When did the timeline (for planning, design, production and execution) begin?
Yinka Shonibare: I would say, probably two and a half years ago. The exhibition did coincide with a lot of stuff that’s been happening… an economic crisis on the one hand and then you’ve also got the Arab Spring. Crisis in America, crisis in Europe. The so-called ‘third world’ countries gradually becoming more powerful: Brazil, India and China. And, of course, you have the banker’s bonuses. It reminded me of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, a time of excess and the loss of power. At the same time, I was working on the Nelson project [the Fourth Plinth Commission in Trafalgar Square] and the ship, the HMS Victory, reminded me of the peak of the British Empire. That got me thinking about imperialism generally and historically: what has happened to the great empires in the past? Then I took Nelson, the hero of naval British ambitions, if you’d like-
Mason: Or somehow embodying those ambitions in a single person?
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.
Shana Beth Mason is a critic based in Brooklyn. Contributions include Art in America, ArtVoices Magazine, FlashArt International, InstallationMag (Los Angeles), Kunstforum.as (Oslo), The Brooklyn Rail, The Miami Rail, San Francisco Arts Quarterly (SFAQ), and thisistomorrow.info (London).
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