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Yinka Shonibare's colorful artworks subvert colonial narratives

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Internationally renowned artist Yinka Shonibare discusses his latest work and reflects on art's role in shaping perceptions of identity and immigration.

Posted: Mar 14, 2019 4:40 PM
Updated: Mar 14, 2019 4:40 PM

London-born artist Yinka Shonibare is both a favorite of the British art world and one of its most compelling critics. Since returning to the UK from Lagos, where he grew up, more than 25 years ago, he has received all the accolades deserving of a British art star: he was nominated for a Turner Prize in 2004, commissioned to create an installation on Trafalgar Square's Fourth Plinth in 2010, and was elected as a Royal Academician in 2013.

In January he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, a title he has added to his professional name. This is ironic, given that his work consistently subverts colonial narratives and comments on the interrelationship between Africa and Europe.

Shonibare is best known for his use of Dutch wax prints. Originally inspired by Indonesian batik prints, produced by the Dutch and sold to West Africans, the textile is now widely considered an African print. Its international heritage speaks to the colonial trade links between Africa and Europe, and, to Shonibare, wax print is a symbol of African diaspora and identity.

The fabric appears again in one of his most recent works, "Creatures of the Mappa Mundi." Here, Shonibare has taken on a touchstone of British art history: Hereford Cathedral's Mappa Mundi, the largest surviving medieval map, which depicts how the known world as it was understood by Christian Europe in 1300.

In a series of quilted textiles, sewn in collaboration with Hereford community groups, Shonibare reimagined the people and animals depicted on the map to explore contemporary attitudes towards refugees.

Shonibare spoke to CNN about his new work, his upcoming art space in Lagos, and what it means to be a British-African artist.

CNN: What sort of conversations are you looking to spark with your work at this point in your career?

Yinka Shonibare: I think it's interesting if the work does something, if the work is in dialogue with the audience. But I don't necessarily think that artists should prescribe the kinds of conversation that people should be having about their work. You try to just explore things that people might be concerned with at the time and that's what I've tried to do with this work.

Do you have to be concerned about something for it to inspire your work?

I think work can be produced based on a range of emotions. You can produce work because you're happy and you want to do something quite joyous as an artist, or you could have a dark mood and produce something that is dark.

I like to actually mix the two (and create) something that looks exuberant and then has layers of darkness. I tend to work more or less with ambivalence in my work, so you find that there might actually be opposing emotions or opposing ideas in the work. That's when I feel like it's actually working for me.

Are there specific issues that you're looking to address today?

Recently, obviously because of all the issues around refugees, I've touched on immigration. It's just inescapable. You hear stories of people unfortunately drowning at sea and you're human, you're bound to be touched by that as an artist. Sometimes it's just the absurdity of things or the ignorance around xenophobia.

I'm not necessarily literal about the way I want to explore those issues. Sometimes it's going back to history or literature, methodology and using other kinds of folklore and narrative to explore contemporary concerns.

How important is Africa to your work?

Well , Africa is part of my identity, you know. I grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, and so I have memories of my childhood and I have family there. And so I make work expressing elements of my own identity and the history of that, particularly the colonial relationship of the United Kingdom to Nigeria. I don't necessarily have to define it, it's who I am.

Do you care whether people call you a contemporary artist, or a contemporary African artist?

I can be called an African artist, a contemporary artist, a British Artist, a British-Nigerian artist. I think I'm very happy that people bother to describe me at all!

You're in the midst of building a studio space in Lagos. Do you find you're closer to Nigeria now than you were 10 years ago?

I think that I am in a fortunate position now of being able to actually invest something in Nigeria. With the artist's residency space I am currently building in Lagos, I want to actually bring in international artists who will have cultural exchange with the local artists.

Why do you want to create this space?

There is a very young population in Lagos and I think that the interest in the visual arts is really going up. It's a very dynamic place. There's Lagos Fashion Week, the music scene is big and Nollywood, the film industry, is also big. So the creative industries are actually getting much bigger in Lagos, so it'll be nice to be able to be a part of that.

I think that particularly now in Nigeria, art can actually be a catalyst for resolving a lot of social issues -- employment issues, social-cohesion issues. Nigeria is ethnically diverse and the arts can actually be a place to unite the various ethnic groups. So I think that art can play a very important role in Nigeria.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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