Yinka Shonibare’s work (Nigeria/UK) is a remarkably pertinent illustration of the Unpacking Europe theme. This dandyism enthusiast is as much a perfectionist in his photo works and installations as in his attire. Developing a strong taste for the provocation of the past, this artist, who studied at Goldsmith’s, London’s conceptual art college, questions the interracial and social relations affecting Diaspora populations.
Why did you choose to become an artist?
There are a lot of questions in the world that I would like to examine, and to my mind, art is the appropriate form of expression. It’s a way of producing work that entertains and give pleasure but which, at the same time, is also a form of provocation that encourages people to ask questions. That’s what art is really about in my mind not about giving lessons or providing answers, but posing a certain number of questions or propositions to encourage people to think.
What exactly is this series of photos about?
The story of Oscar Wilde’s « The Portrait of Dorian Gray ». I decided to do these photos because I am very interested in the dandy phenomenon. A dandy is a very well dressed man who uses his style to challenge society. Oscar Wilde is the perfect example of an Irish descendant who defied English aristocratic society. He was able to climb socially thanks to his writing. Dorian Gray is a young dandy who has his own portrait painted. He makes a wish that he stay as young as when the portrait is done, the portrait ageing in his place. Much later on, he falls in love with a young actress, but she is from a lower class than him, so he refuses to marry her and she kills herself. Traumatised by this and by the portrait hidden in his home, he decides to kill the artist that painted it. Once he’s killed him, he decides to destroy the portrait too. As he destroys it, he suddenly ages and dies. I use this story to explore the notion of the body and its fragility.
What made you decide to represent yourself as Dorian Gray?
When you come from Africa and you work in Europe, people expect something that’s traditionally African, whereas you, like anybody else, are interested in stories, you take inspiration from anything you like. You know, I was born in England, but I lived in Nigeria between the ages of 3 and 17. I have lived in England ever since and I am now 39. There has always been tension between the European and the African. There is still a lot of tension in their relationships today. In this series of photos, the protagonist kills. Even if it’s the artist who kills, isn’t he also killing the coloniser, the one who created this new Africa? Isn’t the painter himself the creator of the coloniser? All these metaphors are thus suggested, but I like to be subtle, of course.
What came first, the photos or the installations?
The paintings. The paintings you saw in « The Short Century » exhibition were my way of defying abstract expressionism by choosing not to use a normal mounted canvas. Next, I reproduced the clothes of the rich, the rich Victorian colonialists and aristocrats in order, once again, to evoke colonialism by replacing the classical materials with wax prints. I then started to cut off the dummies heads in reference to the French revolution (laughs).
The history of printed wax cloth is significant too, of course. You know it was made by the Dutch, at the Lisco factory. It was originally destined for the Indonesian market, but the Indonesians didn’t like wearing industrially made cloth. So they tried the West African market where it went down very well. I brought the material in Brixton market in London. Some pieces are made in Manchester too. Although the cloth looks African, it is designed by Europeans who make it in Europe. You now also get African versions made in Africa. Some people even place orders when they want the portraits of important politicians on the material, for example.
I like to play this game, you know, because my art school tutors always used to say to me: « You’re African! Why don’t you make traditional African art? » But I grew up in Lagos, a crazy modern town, listening to James Brown and Femi Kuti. And when I came to Europe, they told me to produce primitive art! I really found that very funny!
Where do you situate your work in relation to the exhibition’s overall theme?
The body of questions dealt with in this exhibition concern analysing European history in relation to others. That already reflects my personal situation. I get the impression that my work already contains all these themes.
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