Sunday, 24 March 2013

Yinka Shonibare MBE: Fabric-ation, Yorkshire Sculpture Park 27th February 2013

It seems a while since I was last at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, last time I drove, in glorious warm sunshine. This time I caught the train in cold but again, sunny weather and was ferried in style to a private bloggers view organised by Emma the lovely Culture Vulturess. The show this time around couldn't have been more different to the YSP's normal fare. Instead of steel, stone and wood, we were almost immediately faced with bright colourful textiles thanks to the UK's most extensive show to date by this British-Nigerian artist.

As a textile artist myself, I had already come across Yinka Shonibare's interesting take on the Dutch-made faux-batik textiles that ended up becoming adopted as the cloth of choice of nineteenth century West Africa. A casual observer might assume that the brightly patterned fabric was native to Africa and Yinka uses it to great effect in virtually everything he does, from film, to sculpture and photography.

The leitmotif of the fabrics, variable as they are is at once a thread that gathers the exhibition at YSP together and yet at the same time raises troubling thoughts about the emperor's new clothes. I should say right here that I loved the exhibition, but the friend I came with, an experienced dress-maker, absolutely hated it, focussing on the fact that very little of what we saw was actually crafted by the artist himself. That we had a good long argument about it on the train home I think is in fact a tribute to the artist's ability to provoke and stimulate so I wouldn't let this put you off visiting and making up your own mind!

So, back to the show...curator Sarah made us most welcome and provided an in-depth narrative about each piece as we were shown round. If I had a criticism, it was that we didn't have enough time to simply observe in silence and make up our own interpretations. We learned that Yinka had chosen to explore issues of African authenticity from his time at art college, having first of all believed the Dutch cloth was traditional along with everyone else he realised that it was the perfect vehicle for him to explore all sorts of issues around 'africanness'.

The floating space capsule in the YSP foyer with its umbilically-attached astronauts in their natty fabric space-suits for instance, is a statement about the invisibility of African in the USA vs USSR space race. We moved on into the Underground Gallery and met with his 'Food Faeries' - headless dancing children in Victorian outfits and feathery wings. They had nets full of fruit slung over their shoulders and reference a myriad of ideas from the Victorian British Empire's annexation of the world's resources to the food inequalities that persist today and the children that suffer most as a result of these inequalities and whose agonised faces appear on our televisions in a bid to get us to pay for the food aid that will be flown back out to them in times of famine. There is also the idea that for most western consumers, the food they eat might as well be brought to the supermarket by faeries for all the interest they have in the source of what they stuff in their shopping trolleys.

Cannonball Heaven 2011. Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London
We moved on to the first room with its Nelson theme. From Trafalgar Square to HMS Victory, you couldn't really pick a more obvious symbol of Britishness and Yinka has clearly enjoyed subverting all that British stiff upper-lip kiss-me-Hardy stuff. We are treated to more headless figures ramming fabric shot down ship's cannons all clothed in Yinka's trademark dazzling fabrics now fashioned into very authentic looking eighteenth century styles. Around the walls are Yinka's take on the classic death bed scene painting from Chatterton to da Vinci, but again subverted by both the fabrics and also the non-white faces of characters inserted into the well-known scenes. They were in fact hyper-real photographs, glowing with colour and large scale in a rather histrionic way.

Fake Death Picture (The Suicide - Leonardo Alenza), 2011. Courtesy the artist and James Cohen Gallery, New York, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London

Back out in the corridor the headless figures were replaced with even more disturbing figures with taxidermy heads of foxes and a calf, carrying golden guns (a Saddam Hussein reference apparently) called Revolution Kids. As someone who finds the recent use by several artists of taxidermy specimens rather unpleasant and at the very least, disrespectful, I didn't really enjoy looking at these objects although I was interested in the subject matter which was the youthful leaders of both the Arab Spring and the London riots... spot the Blackberry phone...our irrational fear of half-human feral kids was underlined by the use of the ultimate urban survivor, the fox, placed on the bodies of French Revolutionaries.

Revolution Kid (Fox Boy), 2012. Courtesy the artist and Collection Museum Beelden aan Zee, Den Haag- Scheveningen (The Netherlands). Acquired with the generous support of the BankGiro Loterij.

Gallery 2 was full of aliens in Da Vinci style flying machines, part of what we were told was Yinka's mission to amuse as well as confront. Gallery 3 had a huge painting called 'Black Gold' which referred to the exploitation of oil, a current source of conflict in Nigeria. And on we went, past a kaleidoscope of colour and  big questions, quite exhausting thinking about it now, but from the notes I made on the day, utterly  engaging, and ending up with a mysterious film of eighteenth century dancers and a murder, replayed over and over again, sometimes backwards, sometimes forwards with all the oddness that implies. At this point I realised I had begun to see the Yinka fabrics as no longer cheap market stall cottons but as gorgeous plumage worn by human birds of paradise. I wondered if that was in the end the effect that Yinka wanted - that a white Western viewer would begin to see these cheap fabrics through the eyes of the Africans who wore them with pride and delight and as symbols of their wealth as well as their joy.

As a postscript I should like to recommend that people pop upstairs in the main building to see Yinka's collaged drawings. They have a lightness of touch and beauty which serve as a wonderful place to actually start your viewing. If you have any doubts about the artist's skills then see these and believe.

Yinka Shonibare MBE: Fabric-ation continues at YSP until 1st September 2013. Further details here