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June 2009, Yinka Shonibare MBE @ Museum of Contemporary Art

June 2009, Yinka Shonibare MBE @ Museum of Contemporary Art
Yinka Shonibare, MBE, The Swing (after Fragonard), 2001, mixed media, dimensions variable, approx. 330 x 350 x 220 cm, Tate. Purchased 2001, Courtesy of the artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and James Cohan Gallery, New York. ������© the artist, Photo: Ahlburg Keate Photography

Yinka Shonibare MBE @ Museum of Contemporary Art
West Circular Quay
Sydney, Australia
September 24, 2008 through February 1, 2009

The exhibition, curated by Rachel Kent, MCA Senior Curator, will tour to the Brooklyn Museum, New York from 26 June – 20 September 2009 and the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. from 11 November 2009 – 7 March 2010.
And everybody knows that its now or never
Everybody knows that its me or you
And everybody knows that you live forever
Ah when you’ve done a line or two
Everybody knows the deal is rotten
Old blackjoes still pickin cotton
For your ribbons and bows
And everybody knows [1]

- Leonard Cohen 

Yinka Shonibare MBE is a non-pareil master of the sleight of hand. He has a way of extracting “what everybody knows” – our disregard of the disenfranchised, our vacuous obsessions, our acquiescence, our heedless longings for both temporary fixes and oblivion – and succeeds in personifying its quintessence, foiling us with his sumptuous, visual splendors. And, as in any good magic show, we play a role in which we agree to be captivated by something we know to be a ruse. Although Shonibare brings wit and winks to his dazzling art, he is deadly serious. He provokes thought and sets us straight. Well, at least while we’re under his spell.

In room after room that MCA dedicated to Shonibare for this twelve-year survey of his work - encompassing painting, sculpture, large-scale mixed media installations, photography and film – it’s the installations that captivate us. Shonibare literally sets the stage for them. As he says, “It’s the way I view culture—it’s an artificial construct.” [2] Using minimal props, he plots within each ‘set’ a dramatic moment from the 18th century. Instead of actors, he strikes their poses with life-size mannequins. Shonibare conceives the unique gestures of each sculpture and delegates its individualistic molding. Other than a trio of leashed ocelots (in Leisure Lady (with ocelots), the sculptures are in human form. And headless. This is startling, at first, although with repetitiveness we become equally inured and fascinated. There’s no blood or violence so even if we imagine their unique identities, subliminally the decapitations play tricks with our minds. We’re caught up too with what the sculptures are wearing: lavish rococo costumes tailored from atypical fabric: kaleidoscopically patterned / brightly colored batiks. These textiles, which Shonibare buys from Brixton market in London, are the same Indonesian wax-dye type sold to Africans by Dutch traders in the 19th century. They are a recurrent visual leitmotif in Shonibare’s art, tying him, as a self-described ‘postcolonial hybrid,’ to his British / Nigerian background. Formally, Shonibare’s ploy is to “explore ideas about African identity and the legacy of European colonialism in the present.” [3] With admirable discretion, Shonibare doesn’t reveal that exactly. Nor does he reveal how rampant territorial expansion and slavery by western European countries were misinterpreted by everyone except the western European countries. But, he doesn’t conceal the pride, the privilege, the pleasure and the power of the aristocratic / ruling class that enabled that reality either. Currency, in its many forms, trades in illusion. And so does Shonibare.

The highlights? There are four of them. Nothing can prepare you for Shonibare’s enthralling coquette in his three-dimensional reconstruction of a painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, La balançoire (1767): The Swing (after Fragonard). Dressed in a flounced Dior-inspired gown, the sculpture, mid-arc on a swing, is held in the time-space of a poetic landscape. In the painting, she’s watched by a young man while being pushed on the swing by a bishop, but here, she is alone, and playfully so. One court shoe is tossed in the air, a symbol of the loss of virginity. We can almost hear her laugh, high above us. Simultaneously, what seems to drop into our consciousness is something like this: once virtue - or innocence or aboriginality - is lost it can never be regained no matter how frivolous we appear to be, how proud we are or how much compensation is promised.

Gallantry and Criminal Conversation (Parasol) is a sublime component of Shonibare’s carousing party-piece of a European Grand Tour outing: an explicit / illicit paradise in which his sculptures indulge in a variety of sexual proclivities in pairs (along with an x-rated trio.) Criminal Conversation alludes to the act of adultery; something that is presumably easier to do when one is travelling than back at home. Because the ‘lords and ladies’ are in a fully clothed ensemble it adds a cheeky, neo-exhibitionist aspect to their pleasurable and privileged ‘conversations’ and a voyeuristic one to our own proximal, gazing envy.

In complete contrast is Scramble for Africa where Shonibare conjures a decisive split-second: a judicial law that will affect a race’s fate, a continent’s future, the world’s destiny. Seated around a table are fourteen masculine sculptures posed with descriptive intensity. One is in obvious distress and we intuit his repugnance of assent; capitulation we know will prevail because a firm hand presses on his shoulder. A bribe is offered to another, egging him on. The other figures are detached, resigned or impatient. The chairman’s finger is pointed. The die - for now - has been cast and Shonibare evokes its artifice. “There’s only one law for Aboriginal people. White people have other law that changes all the time.” [4]

The effect of symmetry and mirror positioning in a pair of dueling sculptures in How to Blow up Two Heads at Once (Ladies) is breathtaking. Brooking no alternative, they steadfastly take their aims with pistols. This is Shonibare’s ultimate trick and it metaphorically vanishes any of our remaining delusions.

Shonibare suavely exploits our all-too-human predilections and follies, and yet, magician that he is, paradoxically, what lingers most is the compassion within his art.

[1] Leonard Cohen, song lyrics from Everybody Knows http://www.lyricsfreak.com/l/leonard+cohen/everybody+knows_20082809.html

[2] Yinka Shonibare, interview with Pernilla Holmes, Art News Online, October 2002.

[3] http://www.mca.com.au/default.asp?page_id=15&content_id=5152

[4] (translation) Paddy Japaljarri Sims; Liam Campbell, Darby, One hundred years of life in a changing culture (Sydney: ABC Books, 2006) 20.

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Amarie Bergman

Conceptual and reductive artist, Amarie Bergman, shows her work at non-objective art galleries in Sydney and Paris. She writes for Whitehot Magazine and currently is based in Canberra, Australia.

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