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Conversation with Yinka Shonhibare CBE RA

"There was and still is today a veneer of manners and social acceptability full of inherent contradiction within privileged society and I wanted to create a work that pulled back the curtain on this.", says Yinka Shonibare, CBE RA, looking back at his groundbreaking work Gallantry and Criminal Conversation for Documenta in 2002. Fast forward twenty years to Stockholm and the artist will soon see the inauguration of what is a specially comissioned public sculpture for the Princess Estelle Sculpture Park at Royal Djurgården, that speaks of multi-layered identities and global interdependence.

Yinka Shonibare CBE RA, 2019. In front of The British Library, 2014 Photographer: Oliver Cowling, Tate Photography

C-P: Being a seminal artist since years; what feels particularly important to you in 2022, in your own artistic practice and ground and about art in general, when you look around yourself?

Y.S: Recently, my artistic practice has been focused on exploring monuments linked to the global slave trade and the British Empire. I’m exhibiting at the Sharjah Biennial in 2023 and I’m creating a series of works titled, Decolonised Structures, which recreate seven public statues that shape the cityscape of London. These statues mostly go unnoticed and unquestioned, and I hope their reproduction and decontextualization enables the continued debate about the legacy of colonialism and historical education.

I’m also continuing to explore the influence of African Art on Modernism for an upcoming solo exhibition at Goodman Gallery in Cape Town which opens in September. So many modernist artists in the early 20th century were collectors and enthusiasts for the language of form of African artefacts and adapted those in their practices. In my view, the African contribution to modernism has never really been celebrated in the way it ought to be.

The Swing (after Fragonard), 2001 Photographer: Stephen White & Co

C-P: 2022 being the year of Documenta ’15 in Kassel, it brings thought to your noted work Gallantry and Criminal Conversation for Documena ’11, twenty years ago. Looking back at that moment in time today, what springs to mind?

Y.S: When I made Gallantry and Criminal Conversation in 2002, I was just thinking generally about our society at a period of unprecedented wealth. A lot of people were getting richer and richer; they were having lavish parties with so much money around. I was interested in exploring historic notions of wealth, entitlement and morality. There was and still is today a veneer of manners and social acceptability full of inherent contradiction within privileged society and I wanted to create a work that pulled back the curtain on this.

Render of Wind Sculpture in Bronze I by Yinka Shonibare. 2022, 200 x 137 x 147 cm, bronze, laquer, concrete.

C-P: What can be said about your new permanent sculpture Wind Sculpture in Bronze I for the sculptural park on Djurgården?

Y.S: This new sculpture, Wind Sculpture in Bronze I, specially commissioned for the Royal Djurgården in Stockholm, is a development on my Wind Sculpture series. It represents a distillation of ideas about identity as a cultural construct, a theme that runs throughout most of my work. The concept of hybridity is embedded in the Dutch wax textiles, which the sculpture’s patterns and forms are based upon. The mixed origins of the fabric – factory-made by the Dutch – based on Indonesian batiks sold to Britain’s West African colonies, embraced there and considered in the world’s eyes as authentic African products, make a perfect vehicle to inspire conversations about our multi-layered identities and global interdependence.

Yinka Shonibare fabrics. Photo: Moderna Museet/Åsa Lundén

C-P: You have artistic ties with Sweden since before that connects you to Moderna Museet where a performance inspired by your work will be presented in conjunction with the unveiling of the sculpture. I have often been intrigued by your work Vasa Ship (2004) from the collection of the museum. What fascinated you about this historical cornerstone in Swedish history?

Y.S: I was fascinated to discover there is a museum in Stockholm that is a monument to the failure of the Vasa. The sculpture, Vasa Ship (2004), emerged from my study of the historic decadence of the 17th Century Swedish monarchy, who commissioned Vasa, the largest-ever wooden warship. I wanted to take the heroic object of a ship and convert it almost into a toy, in the sense that it’s disarmed, it takes power away. I also created sails on the ship made of batik fabric which reflect global trade and mass immigration.

Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, 2010 Photographer: Stephen White & Co.

C-P: Lastly, I would like to bring attention to the residency program and the art space you set up in Lagos; Guest Artist Space Foundation. What might you like to share about the programme and practice of the foundation and where it’s heading in time to come?

Y.S: G.A.S. – Guest Artists Space Foundation just recently opened in Lagos, Nigeria. We have created a space where artists can live and work. But the interesting thing is that just about two hours outside Lagos we also have a 54-acre farm and farmhouse, which will host residents as well. We’re doing agriculture, sustainable farming and a bit of conservation. We want to bring artists from around the world to Africa because cultural exchange is very important, it’s work I’m passionate about. I want this project to lead to growing knowledge, respect and interdisciplinary collaborations. My hope is that it will contribute in the long term to a more sustainable society.

The inauguration on site at the Princess Estelle Sculpture Park at Royal Djurgården takes place on June 2.

Yinka Shonibare CBE RA is represented by Stephen Friedman Gallery in London, James Cohan Gallery in NYC and Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town (Johanneburg).


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