It seems fitting that an exhibition of Nigerian-British artist Yinka Shonibare’s work is being shown at the Brooklyn Museum, located in a borough where more cultures meet daily in the Atlantic/Pacific subway station than in high season in a trading port of call.
A signature of Shonibare’s work is the use of Dutch wax fabric, African-inspired, vibrantly colored and patterned yardage goods produced in Europe and sold in Africa and elsewhere. The fabric is a rich and effective symbol for the intersection of cultures, from a sociological standpoint and commerce-wise. Shonibare (who, not insignificantly, uses the honorary title MBE after his name) creates elaborate colonial costumes with the prints, boldly mixing them and sparing no detail.
He sometimes creates tableaux vivants with actors and photographs them, or makes sculptural installations with mannequins, taking inspiration from other artists such as Fragonard, Goya, and the film Dorian Gray. One series of sculptures depicts luminaries from the Age of Enlightenment in the pompous poses of intellectuals—at a lectern or a desk. The sheer amount of associative information in these works gives them a layered density that can sometimes be intriguing, sometimes opaque, if visually familiar.
A large gallery is devoted to one multi-part installation, Gallantry and Criminal Conversation, in which the characters—in full Victorian costume, of course—behave lecherously amid a carriage and valises. Shonibare usually uses headless mannequins, stripping away any identity of individuals. Two of the strongest installations are the simplest: Leisure Lady (with ocelots) replaces Afghans or greyhounds with big wild cats; and How to Blow Up Two Heads at Once (Ladies), two mannequins in a stand off.
Shonibare has also shown a deftness with film. In Un Ballo in Maschera, a masked ball treads the line between civilized and feral; the drama is heightened by the rather sinister rustlings of fabrics and petticoats. He manages to bring out both the ultra-refined and pack-animal aspects of such social gatherings which elicit for many of us, respectively, pleasure and dread.
Another highlight are the numerous “collaborations” with the museum’s period rooms. Shonibare’s sculptures of children are planted throughout these rather dry, permanent exhibits in a separate part of the museum. They energize and activate these musty spaces, and they provoke many levels of thought. Just as the entire Shonibare exhibition—which originated at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Australia and runs through September 20—succeeds in doing.
Photo: Yinka Shonibare, Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball), 2004. Film: High definition digital video. 32:00 minute loop, edition 1 of 6 (2 Aps). Courtesy the artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and James Cohan Gallery, New York.