Born in England in 1962 and raised in Nigeria, Yinka Shonibare currently lives and works in London, where he has gained international attention by exploring issues of race and class through a range of media that includes sculpture, painting, photography, and installation art. Adopting a richly complex, unconventional approach, Shonibare lampoons the concept of achieving status through what might be called cultural authenticity. His works, simultaneously innocent and subversive, address a range of cultural and historical issues and, in the process, blur the boundaries of design, ethnography, and contemporary art.
Like most of Shonibare’s works, Dysfunctional Family is a playful exploration of status, alienation, and multiculturalism. This is accentuated by the artist’s use of batik, a colorful, patterned material often used as a symbol for exoticism or “Africanness.” The fabric, however, is not indigenous to Africa, but is actually colonial in origin. First made in Indonesia, it was imported to Holland and reproduced by English designers. Dysfunctional Family consists of four stuffed mannequins of a stereotypical “space-alien” family that, at about four feet high, look like oversized cartoon toys. The artist here uses the patterned fabric as a metaphor for the phenomenon of cultural confusion, unveiling the notion of identity as a construct. At the same time, he uses the creatures to play on the notion of the foreign–or “alien”–in today’s social fabric.
Shonibare’s work was included in the Walker’s 1991 exhibition Interrogating Identity. He won the Paul Hamlyn Foundation Award for visual artists in 1998. This sculpture adds further depth to the Walker’s collection of young British artists of African descent, joining works by Chris Ofili and Keith Piper in the permanent collection.