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Studio view
Courtesy Walker Art Center
Studio view Image Rights
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Courtesy Walker Art Center
Copyright retained by the artist


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Dysfunctional Family
father 58-¼ × 20-½ × 15 inches
wax-printed cotton, polyester, wood, plastic
Not on view

Object Details

Accession Number
Physical Description
Three standing alien figures constructed of stuffed wax printed fabric.
Credit Line
Butler Family Fund, 2000

object label Yinka Shonibare, Dysfunctional Family (1999) Walker Art Center, 2000

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.

Label text for Yinka Shonibare, Dysfunctional Family (1999), from the exhibition State of the Art: Recent Gifts and Acquisitions, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, July 22-October 8, 2000.

Copyright 2000 Walker Art Center

transcript Yinka Shonibare Yinka Shonibare, 2001

I’m going to start by giving you some idea of what my work is about, and some of the things I think about. My background is that I was born in London–my parents were studying law in London at the time. And I went back to Nigeria with my parents when I was quite young, I must have been about five years old, and then came back to Britain to go to boarding school.

It’s kind of interesting because a lot of Nigerians actually grow up being bicultural. So, on the one hand, you would speak English at school and at home you would speak my language, which is actually Yoruba, and that’s the language I grew up speaking. Because of the kind of colonial system, you would actually be fined for speaking your own language at school, so you would have to speak English.

So anyway, I went to boarding school in England and when I left boarding school, I decided to study visual arts. What I found very interesting about that experience was when I started to study visual arts, there was some expectation from my tutors–although they knew fully well that I was bicultural, bilingual–there was some kind of expectation that I would produce inadvertent comments, ethnic comments.

I became very politicized [sic] in my second year at college. I started to actually make … I made a huge departure from painting from the figure. And I started to do quite political work. I was making work about perestroika in Russia; primarily just world issues [were what] I was making work about. I remember I had a studio in Britain, and one of the tutors came to my studio and he said to me, “Perestroika, what’s that got to do with you? Why aren’t you making work about your roots, your African-ness, your ethnicity?” And I thought: Well, what would that be? What actually constitutes the notion of authenticity, given the colonial background, my background? How would I actually go about producing art that would be pure and that would touch on some of my own supposedly indigenous background?

Yinka Shonibare, from the website Global Positioning: Exploring Contemporary World Art, 2003.

Copyright 2003 Walker Art Center

excerpt Literature: H.G. Wells H.G. Wells, 1898

“And we men, the creatures that inhabit this earth, must be to them at least as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us. The intellectual side of man already admits that life is an incessant struggle for existence, and it would seem that this too is the belief of the minds upon Mars. Their world is far gone in its cooling and this world is still crowded with life, but crowded only with what they regard as inferior animals. To carry warfare sunward is, indeed, their only escape from the destruction that, generation after generation, creeps upon them.”

“And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”

Excerpt from H. G. Wells, The War of the Worlds, 1898

Excerpt from H. G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (1898), from the website Global Positioning: Exploring Contemporary World Art, 2003.

Copyright 2003 Walker Art Center

online content Rights: Aliens Walker Art Center, 2003

“The alien is the colonial figure par excellence. Remember The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells? It was about the fear of aliens taking over the world. In the United States for a long time, the fear of communism prevailed. There is a lot of talk about "bogus” asylum seekers in Britain now. The alien work is an attempt to explore racial prejudice in a humorous way, using an image of popular American cinema.“
–Yinka Shonibare, 2001

Shonibare uses his art to playfully poke holes in the idea of national identity. Using figures that bring to mind space aliens as they often appear in the movies, the artist sets up a play on the idea of being an "alien” that, in the context of immigration and cultural identity, has an entirely different tone. Further, employing such fantastic and humorous figures to deal with heavy issues like racism and prejudice is one way Shonibare communicates the often cartoon-like way people represent cultures other than their own.

Rights: Aliens, from the website Global Positioning: Exploring Contemporary World Art, 2003.

Copyright 2003 Walker Art Center

online content Economy: Batik Walker Art Center, 2003

The brightly colored so-called African textile covering the figures in Dysfunctional Family is Dutch wax. Batik fabric was first produced in Indonesia and later made in the Netherlands and Great Britain and exported to Africa. There it became an affirming political statement about African identity. The cloth was manufactured, however, in countries against which Africa would eventually have to fight to gain independence. In addition, the designs were inspired by the art of Indonesia, another country dominated by the same colonizing influences.

“The story of the fabric I use is so interesting. It is Indonesian influenced. It was manufactured in Holland and then in Manchester and shipped to West Africa. Then, after independence, it was adopted as African cloth. But as you can see from the history, its identity is a construct. The fabric is not one thing… . I am interested in those kinds of influences which make up so-called identity.”
–Yinka Shonibare

Economy: Batik, from the website Global Positioning: Exploring Contemporary World Art, 2003.

Copyright 2003 Walker Art Center

online content Museum: Background Information Walker Art Center, 2003

Born in London in 1962, and raised in Nigeria from the age of four, Yinka Shonibare returned to London to study at Goldsmiths College. At school he originally made figurative paintings, and in his second year began to incorporate political events as the subject of his work.

In Dysfunctional Family Shonibare uses batik-patterned fabric to cover four stuffed mannequins that look like clich├ęd representations of aliens. The work is overtly silly, using the most extreme version of foreignness–an alien from outer space–to call into question the ways we perceive difference. At first glance, they are all strange creatures; in their outrageous forms we can easily identify them as different from ourselves. Then we begin to perceive the differences among the aliens: There is both a parent and child in each fabric, obviously different from each other. On a very basic level Shonibare demonstrates how we use visual cues to categorize other beings. He uses “aliens” consciously in the term’s association with immigration and foreignness (as in the phrase “illegal aliens”), but also to comment on the absurdity of reinforcing difference through stereotyping by race, class, or nationality.

Yinka Shonibare, Dysfunctional Family (1999), from the website Global Positioning: Exploring Contemporary World Art, 2003.

Copyright 2003 Walker Art Center

artist statement Artist: Yinka Shonibare Yinka Shonibare, 2001

“I am very interested in the politics of representation as opposed to the representation of politics. I hope that by examining the origins of a nationalist icon I can begin to expose the process of stereotyping, which inevitably leads to the most inhuman atrocities. The politics of representation are not to be taken lightly. You must not infer from this that I do not like or understand the emancipatory or symbolic notion of African fabric. The contrary is true.”
–Yinka Shonibare, 2001

Yinka Shonibare on Dysfunctional Family (1999), from the website Global Positioning: Exploring Contemporary World Art, 2003.

Copyright 2003 Walker Art Center