Yinka Shonibare talks to Katie Law about trying new things in his work and racism in Britain after Brexit
Headless figures having sex doggy-style, clad in batik breeches and ballgowns, an installation of 10,000 batik-covered books with gold spines in the British Library, a scaled-down replica of Nelson’s HMS Victory with 37 batik sails in a gigantic glass bottle on the fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square — these are just a few of the works for which Yinka Shonibare is famous.
The Anglo-Nigerian’s easy-on-the-eye art, with its themes of British colonial history-meets-African traditionalism, have brought him considerable commercial success. His works sell for tens of thousands of pounds, he has had major exhibitions all over the world and been awarded various gongs, including an MBE in 2004, and was made a Royal Academician in 2013. Yet Shonibare, who is part of the YBA generation, has always called his relationship with the establishment a “love-hate” one, describing himself as “a rebel within, who secretly wants to be a part of it”.
While most of his work features his trademark batiks — the Indonesian-influenced wax-resist fabrics originally produced by the Dutch for the African market (although Shonibare buys his in Brixton market) — he has spurned them for the first time in his new show at the Stephen Friedman Gallery. Why? “I like to try new things and directions and to see how far I can push the work,” says the 54-year-old Londoner, sitting in his wheelchair in his Bethnal Green studio. For this exhibition, he has produced a series of hand-painted classical sculptures, screenprints on canvas and a large mural. But his characteristic love of pattern and bright colour are still very much in evidence. A fibreglass copy of Michelangelo’s David has been hand-painted in an electric-blue batik pattern (under Shonibare’s instruction) and finished with a figleaf in gold.
“The figleaf is a bit of a joke about the tradition of using a fig leaf. People are prudish but using a figleaf actually draws more attention than if it wasn’t there. I use gold symbolically to highlight wealth because of the disparity between the haves and the have-nots,” he explains.
A life-sized screenprint of Saint Sebastian shows a nude male with African physiognomy, daubed “Voodoo Sebastian”, while his version of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man has been rendered as an androgynous black figure.
“Let people be a combination of things,” he says. “Why all these strict boundaries, walls and nationalities? Somebody might be bisexual; why can’t people dip into whatever sexuality they want to? These things are cultural constructs.” But haven’t we become much more tolerant as a society? “I question the word ‘tolerant’ and wish as a society we would stop using it. Tolerance suggests that the heteros are ‘giving permission’ and that minorities have to be ‘tolerated’. Those are the attitudes we need to change,” he says, gently but firmly.
While one gallery director has called Shonibare a one-trick pony, the artist tells me his new pieces have been made as a direct response to the current global crisis: “The work comes from the extremes of ideologies we’ve been having: the rise of the extreme Right and Left; of Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn. We seem to be losing the liberal humanist progress we’ve made in the past 50 years and going backwards.”
The show’s title, …And the Wall Fell Away, refers to our renewed preoccupation with building walls. “When the Berlin Wall came down, everyone was really pleased; it was an enthusiastic era. But now everyone wants to build them. We’re just about to build one in Calais. Somehow it [building walls] is the new black, it’s very trendy, but regressive.”
And Brexit has only made things worse. “Racism was getting to the point of being unacceptable in Britain. Now, after Brexit, we have a platform where people can be openly racist.”