Born in England to parents of Nigerian descent, Yinka Shonibare explores the cultural duality of his upbringing through work that is informed by the complex and contradictory history of colonialism and the attendant dynamics of power, race, and class. His multidisciplinary practice, which includes painting, photography, sculpture, and installation, converges with his relentless fascination with the politics of representation. Through cultural symbols such as the batik, a type of textile with colorfully patterned motifs, Shonibare uncovers the often murky territory of authenticity.
Used widely throughout the African diaspora for everything from head wraps to tablecloths, the batik is a loaded subject. Although typically associated as a marker of African culture and usurped in modern times as a symbol of nationalism and empowerment, its history reveals something quite different. The cloth actually originated in Indonesia, where it was exported to Holland during the Dutch colonization of that country. Via these colonial trade routes, the fabric was introduced throughout Europe and then appropriated in Africa in the early nineteenth century. This is where Shonibare’s work begins.
In his elaborate installations and sculptural works, he creates tableaux of Victorian proportions, taking period parlor rooms and characters straight out of Thomas Gainsborough paintings and literally dressing them up with batik cloths. Shonibare’s signature works are physical manifestations of cultures clashing. In Dysfunctional Family (1999), he uses the textile to mask a group of figures resembling aliens. The title plays off and destabilizes bourgeois definitions of the family unit and the enterprise of acceptance and alienation. The artist deals with the perversity of norms and deconstructs the binary relationships between high and low, race and class, the colonized and the colonizer. In doing so, Shonibare eloquently expresses the layered and often overlapping experiences that constitute the self-consciousness of a postcolonial world.