Yinka Shonibare, MBE: A Flying Machine for Every Man, Woman and Child and Other Astonishing Works
Powder! There was so much powder inwaiting, that it flavoured the dinner. Pulverous particles got into the dishes, and Society’s meats had a seasoning of first-rate footmen. Mr. Merdle took down a countess who was secluded somewhere in the core of an immense dress, to which she was in the proportion of the heart to the overgrown cabbage. If so low a simile may be admitted, the dress went down the staircase like a richly brocaded Jack in the Green, and nobody knew what sort of small person carried it.
-Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit, 1855-57
Yinka Shonibare deploys a crisp and colorful fabric to do a rapier’s witty work. On HBO this spring, this same colorful fabric covers the “traditionally built” body of Jill Scott, the actress playing Mma Ramotswe in thedramatization of Alexander McCall Smith’s serial detective novels set in Botswana, The No. One Ladies Detective Agency. Scraps of it flower on the sentimental remainder of my hippy wardrobe from the ’70s. It is there because of a consumer–not critical–adjacency of a middle class white girl’s aspiration to align herself with liberal liberation theology claims to any post colonial position not her own, including and especially in the ’70s, Black Power. The fabric appears in Japanese designer Junya Watanabe’s spring 2009 line, where, in the commentary blogs, it is referred to as a traditional West African cloth. It is, in fact, Dutch–and by way of Indonesia, not Africa.
The fabric is an industrial batik. If you spend a lot of time on your computer, you may think that Batik is a software program for Java platforms, but I am referring to its earlier sense–a method of dying textiles using wax resists that has its roots in the place on the globe we know as Java, in the Indonesian archipelago. The Dutch empire included Indonesia for 350 years, and the watery world of wooden ships connected Indonesia to India to Africa to Great Britain to Holland to north and South America–and on those ships went trade goods: fabrics, African bodies and ideas among them. It’s an old story.
On our wired globe, you can sail the electrons over to Vlisco.com, the website for the textile house in the Netherlands that in 1846 industrialized a wax-resist dye process that in its native Java was (and is) still intricately done by hand. Vlisco’s exported simulacrum ruled the Indonesian market for batik cloth before the close of the nineteenth century, and along the watery way, Dutch ships sold the fabric in the African ports with which they traded. Today, Vlisco’s primary market continues to be in the developing world, especially Africa, where “Real Dutch Wax” or “Veritable Hollandaise” carries the cachet that in other parts of the world attaches to Rolex and Chanel. The fabrics’ bold patterns and saturated colors defy discrete description, their excess standing for an exuberant tribal taste now popularly synonymous with a generalized anda-historical Africa.
I want to argue that in Shonibare’s work “Real Dutch Wax” fabrics are placeholders for African bodies–repressed and returned–in a very complicated, post-colonial way. I say placeholder, not metaphor (or more precisely metonym), because the figure is extremely unstable–it winks, if you will–there one minute and gone the next. The fabrics appear in all of Shonibare’s works, a selection of which were on view in this British artist’s first solo exhibition on the West Coast at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, organized by curator Julie Joyce.
The cloth appears in Shonibare’s fanciful tableaux of 19th century upper class bodies at play. It clothes headless mannequins chasing the hounds with the crispness of Savile Row tailoring, every cuff, button and lapel pin-perfect, except, outrageously, exhilaratingly wrong. In place of quiet tweeds and silk whispers, this fabric trumpets loud. It cloaks the diminutive forms of child mannequins identified through titling with Charlotte and Emily Bronte, and Charles Dickens. Are these mannequins–headless again– representations of the authors as children, as others have assumed, diminished to the cuteness of dolls? or do they represent the various childhoods of their literary creations, Jane Eyre, Catherine Earnshaw and perhaps Oliver Twist (to pick one among many for Dickens), seen as if through the wrong end of a telescope, or perhaps diminishing in time? The authors are among the “giants” of 19th century English literature, but it is their characters that are our emotional touchstones for the intense social criticisms and satires each author explores. Power–in this case,the expressive power of empathy and its accompanying ability to evacuate guilt–is surely, as Sherlock Holmes would say, the game afoot here.
The fabrics clash internally, their color schemes exactly what my grandmother always despaired of as bad taste. And they clash externally: how can they stand in for reticent tailored tweeds, for the demure grays and fawns of tasteful poverty and discretion, for the judicious bling of “pink” coats at the Hunt? The foxhunters of the tableau Hound (2000) travel on foot, with only enough anatomy to carry the clothes. Who needs a head if a hat isn’t important to the argument, or even a horse for that matter? Across a blank white field, a field only the sterility of a museum pedestal can provide, it is a narrative stripped of all energy and affect, so all that is left is the schema of Colonial era leisure, built on the capital of bodies and indigenous styles scattered and displaced to the point of dispersion and utter nonsense: DutchwaxIndonesianWestAfricantraditional clothing indeed.
The mannequins’ headlessness refuses fixed identification, allowing them to stew in generalized Victorian class affiliations and repressions, that is to say, a set of tropes unanchored in a specific set of historical exigencies and in that way, exactly like the unfixed “Africanness” of the Dutch wax fabrics. In the title piece of the show, A Flying Machine for every Man, Woman and Child (2008), a headless nuclear family circa 1890 (father and son in puttees) struggles to stay upright on unicycles with propellers attached.They are dressed in Shonibare’s impeccably tailored period clothes, fabrics spectacularly clashing and unapologetic, underscoring as cartoonish the idealism of early industrial age fantasies of flight and freedom through machines. Progress, clear and simple, m’dear, we will settle the moon next year! Well, the problem is we are heavier than we think with all that baggage we carry around.
I keep saying mannequins, but I wouldn’t want to give the impression that Shonibare’s are generic like retail dummies. Shonibare’s figures are each specific–like your body is, or like mine. It is the particularityof his bodies that animates the tableaux and keeps my attention: this man is stockier or taller; that one has a different skin tone. Bodies are never generic, as we all know, because we too are specific bodies in vast milling crowds of others. It is common proprioceptive recognition that Shonibare’s carefully rendered figures insist on, never the generalized gloss of stereotype.
Two additional works, the 2004 digital video loop Un Ballo in Maschera and the model ship in a vitrine, La Meduse (2008), each deploy the trademark real Dutch wax fabrics, but in ways significantly different from the headless figurative work. There are bodies in the Ballo piece, but they are living, breathing bodies that move and dance through the lovely spaces of what turns out to be one of the theatres of Gustav III of Sweden. Gustav, a prince of shifting sexual preference by some accounts, invaded Russia, restored an absolutist monarchy with surprisingly liberal leanings and milked the Swedish peasants in support of his lavish cultural court life. Political assassins killed him in 1792 as he was entering the opera house en masque to attend a ball. Verdi scored his famous opera on Gustav’s death, Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball), but had to negotiate immense censorship pressure because regicide was still a very touchy subject in post French Revolution Europe. Eventually the opera, as premiered in Rome in 1859, told the tale of a British Count in pre-revolutionary Boston assassinated as the tragic result of a completely non-political love triangle–another example in the ongoing case for why one should never look for realism or even sense in the narrative arc offered by classic opera.
Shonibare’s take on all this is an elaborately choreographed dance staged in Gustav’s stunning Rococo theatre of 1753, Confidencen, in the Ulriksdal Palace estate in Sweden, thus restoring to this shattered and overwritten tale some location in the surviving real. The story he tells in his Ballo, soundless except for the squeak of feet on old wooden floors, proceeds forward and back in the uncanny sense-bending manner of Gary Hill’s fabulous Gregory Bateson-meets-Alice- in-Wonderland video from 1984, Why Do Things Get in a Muddle? (Come on Petunia). In Hill’s piece, Bateson’s philosophical dialogue about entropy and disorder is staged as a looking glass conversation between a professorial father and Alice-like daughter. The actors move and speak Bateson’s dialogue backward, then the video is played in reverse, yielding an unstable illusion of correct time and speech sense. In Shonibare’s Ballo, sense is also challenged and actions are imbued with an uncanny fierceness that refuses standard narrative resolution, in a way that is much more interesting than Verdi’s compromise with the censors. The video, a loop, proceeds forward and tracks back. Actions repeat, sometimes as an effect of the actual choreography and sometimes as an effect of reversal of forward momentum in the digital video. Gustav, here danced by a woman in drag, gets shot, gracefully falls to the ground, only to rise again equally gracefully a moment later. The cast of approximately 30 dancers is in beautiful period costume made from (you guessed it) Shonibare’s signature Dutch waxfabric. And while these very real moving bodies have heads, they are masked and thus refuse, as in the mannequin works, identification for a generalized and unstable identity (politics?).
The model ship La Meduse (2008) also takes up an historical and political terrain that has been heavily if more faithfully worked over in another famous 19th century cultural product. Shonibare presents what might be called a prequel to Gericault’s monumental Romantic painting known to English speakers as The Raft of the Medusa, (1819). Here again the distinctive fabric marker is deployed, not on bodies this time, but on the sails of the ship, which, in combination with a shift of scale and a curious narrative choice, serves to make space in an overwritten and now obscure historical moment for rethinking colonial (and art) history.
A little history here, perhaps interesting to you, if, like me, Gericault’s painting was narrated in your art history survey class primarily as a dramatic turn in the tale of Painting’s Progress. La Meduse was a 40-gun French frigate that, during the napoleonic wars, saw service in both Indonesia and the Caribbean. With the restoration of the French monarchy, captaincy of the frigate was given to an inexperienced royalist Viscount, commissioned to sail to Senegal and receive, on the King’s behalf, the handover of Port Saint-Louis from the formerly occupying, now allied, British. Carrying the newly appointed French governor of Senegal and a complement of about 400 people, La Meduse set sail in convoy from France to West Africa in June of 1816. La Meduse quickly outstripped the other members of her convoy, and in her hurry, attempted to navigate the treacherous waters off the coast of Mauritania without a proper pilot. (This is a story of ignorance and incompetence that would put Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet to shame.) The ship ran aground on the Bank of Arguin, 60 miles off the coast of Mauretania, on a spring high tide. In the hopes of lightening the ship enough to float off the bank, the crew wasted days building a raft on which to unload the ship’s cargo, because the captain obstinately refused the most expedient choice to cast off and abandon 14 three-ton cannons. What happened next is the moment that Shonibare’s La Meduse recreates: a storm engulfed them, threatening to break up the ship and forcing its rapid abandonment by all but a few hands into the insufficient lifeboats and the makeshift, unnavigable raft.
The rest of the story attaches to Gericault’s painting: the survival and chance rescue of 15 out of 146 abandoned, starved, and cannibalized refugees, depicted in a dramatic triangular heap of dead bodies, at the apex of which appears a black survivor, desperately signaling to a ship barely distinguishable on the horizon. Here again, we encounter the expressive power of empathy in the service of liberal, 19th century social criticism.
Gericault’s painting, approximately 16 by 23 feet, is more than a third the size of the actual raft–20 by 60 feet. Shonibare’s Meduse-in-a-box seems toy-like by comparison, tossed on all too solid fake waves; its Dutch wax sails gaily, incongruously unfurled to the implied gale force winds. The object is winsome, almost cute, as much of Shonibare’s work is, which permits, I believe, an unguarded engagement with the serious critical territory his works open up. Contemplating the opening offered by his La Meduse, I recall the famous 1848 remark by Jules Michelet about Gericault: “It is our whole society that he cast onto the raft of the Medusa…”1 Michelet parsed Gericault’s metaphor to mean France. I parse Shonibare’s metaphor to cover far more ground, and its society is all of us. It is the failure of the puny colonial ship of state to provide its promised safe harbor for all its citizens; its blind, patronizing, greedy arrogance leading to shipwreck, abandonment, cannibalism and death. Colonialism’s receding tide leaves us with only the chaotic flotsam of DutchwaxIndonesian- WestAfricantraditional something or other. Identity politics indeed.
If you google MBE, the capital letters that appear at the end of Shonibare’s name in the title of this show, many of your hits will refer to a U.S. government category called Minority Business Enterprises. Shonibare is not a U.S. citizen; he is a British/Nigerian one. Born in London to Nigerian parents, he grew up in Lagos and now lives and works in London. His MBE refers not to a degree of some kind, but to an honor conferred on him by the British government. MBE means Shonibare is a “Member of the order of the British Empire.” It was awarded in 2004, the same year he was shortlisted for the Turner Prize, for–and I quote Queen Elizabeth II’s own London Gazette of December 30th of that year–“service to the Arts.” This seems very ironic to me given that I read Shonibare’s work as a critique of Empire, but maybe it makes my point, or rather the point I take to be his.
The order of the British Empire is a Chivalric order founded in 1917 by King George V to honor services to the war effort during WWI. Chivalric orders are, according to Wikipedia, “orders of knights that were created by European monarchs in imitation of the military orders of the Crusades.” As such, they are a romantic pastiche based on some of the earliest Christian expressions of imperialism. Imperialism and its pastoral counterpart, colonialism, can be roughly described as a moment in human history when some group of economic, military and/or righteously self-identified group of “Us” decides what must be done to or for some other group of primitive, wrongheaded and/or dangerous “Them” in “our” (and as the argument went in the case of colonialism, “their”) collective best interest. It is a move that is predicated on a territorializing of humanity based on difference, often, but not always, understood as biological and essential: race, gender, creed. Chivalric orders are therefore associated with deeply historical ideas of who “Us” is: by definition an exclusive category.
If the golden age of Victorian England beaches its wheezy, untenable self on the shoals of WWI at the beginning of the 20th century, perhaps we can return to “African bodies” here with Shonibare at the beginning of the 21st century. Shonibare’s body materializes in another work on view at the Santa Barbara Museum, a photograph from 2008 modeled on, and named for, the most famous of Goya’s Caprichos from 1799: The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. Shonibare appears, as Goya does in the original etching, asleep, dreams releasing clouds of mad avian avatars, watched over by a sly lynx at his feet. Dressed in Dutch wax 19th century tailored clothes, Shonibare’s bald pate, a lovely golden brown orb, is resting on his desk. But the artist in this Capricho is not (just) an African body–a black body, he is also a certified British body: Yinka Shonibare MBE. The color of his skin, his essential genetics, and by association, yours or mine–because gender comes in here too–are no longer useful indicators of “us” and “them,” and that’s exactly the point. The post-colonial wreckage–its collapse of categories, its resulting nonsense–may be lamented or may be militated against, but within its ruin lies an undeniable opportunity to understand who we all are, not differently, but in a different way.
Some of the biggest questions of our global age travel with these works, under the masque of this colorful dance of collapsed post-colonial identities. Through Shonibare, I again read Goya’s French Revolutionary era cautionary tale, The Sleep of Reason, as about abdication of responsibility and the terrors released through casual inattention. In our new post-colonial world of remixed identifiers, we all go together toward some just future, but never a-historically and never (one hopes) unreasonably. I so appreciate Shonibare’s insistence that we must finesse both the ruins and the monuments our forebears have left behind. Some who yearn impatiently for an art that takes absolute positions and achieves “measurable outcomes,” to use the language of bureaucratic pedagogy, would do well to study the thoroughness and subtlety of Shonibare’s deft and deeply nuanced touche.
Ellen Birrell is one of the founding editors of X-TRA. She lives on a lemon farm in Santa Paula, CA, and teaches at CalArts.
- As quoted in Michael Fried, Manet’s Modernism, or, The Face of Painting in the1860s, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 122. Readers might also find these websites interesting: http://www.metropolismag.com/html/content_1200/ent.htm and http://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Medusa_(ship)↵