Yinka Shonibare CBE: Suspended States

Serpentine South Gallery (London), April-Sep/24

The first major exhibition of Yinka Shonibare in over twenty years, Yinka Shonibare CBE: Suspended States, on view at the Serpentine South Gallery until early September, features recent sculptures and installations. Throughout his decade-long career, the celebrated British-Nigerian artist has developed a unique imagery surrounding the use of ‘African’ Dutch wax prints. Whereas Dutch wax prints are traditionally associated with the cultural identity of postcolonial Africa, used in the attire of African anti-colonialists in the 1960s, their manufacturing process primarily takes place in different locations around East Asia, being originally produced in Indonesia. These colourful and vibrant batik fabrics are commonly deployed for clothing in West and Central Africa, and Shonibare first started experimenting with them in the early 1990s when he purchased a few pieces from Brixton Market in South London. These elements introduce a rather complex and tantalising sublayer to Shonibare’s vast artistic practice. It is no wonder he identifies as a ‘postcolonial hybrid’, driven to interrogate hegemonic structures and address contested heritage.

Yinka Shonibare, Sanctuary City, 2024

The exhibition at the Serpentine includes a series of works exploring overarching themes such as identity, migration, displacement, colonial legacies, and power relations. The pictorial quilts interweave his signature Dutch wax prints with images, references, and patterns that reflect upon British and European colonial histories. The African Bird Magic quilt series, for instance, depicts African masks alongside endangered birds of African origin, pointing to the European interest in ‘primitivism’, widely manifested by modernist artists such as Picasso, Matisse, and Modigliani, among others.

The large-scale installation The War Library (2024), part of his Library series, stores over 5,000 books engraved with gold lettering, and their titles refer to various conflicts and peace treaties. The never-ending library draws on an infinite list of world events. Despite their opposing and rival nature, these episodes share the same imperialist roots, revealing the global implications of colonialism. Conversely, Sanctuary City (2024), a collection of 17 miniature replicas of historic buildings, invites audiences to immerse themselves in this semi-dark exhibition space, guided by the subtle lights shining through the small archetypical windows. The scale models of the Amnesty International Headquarters in London, the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, and the Hôtel des Mille Collines in Kigali, Rwanda, provide a contrasting historical record between spaces of shelter, refuge, and violence.

Yinka Shonibare, The War Library, 2024

Decolonised Structures (2023) engages with public monuments and recent collective actions against statues of historic figures linked to slavery and colonialism. Instead of removing these monuments from public spaces and institutions, Shonibare once again makes use of his trademark Dutch wax patterns to cover the sculptures, reclaiming their identity and challenging preconceived notions of colonial dominance. ‘I’m changing their character’, the artist explains. ‘I’m making them more beautiful’.

Yinka Shonibare, Decolonised Structures, 2023

Yinka Shonibare CBE: Suspended States offers a singular visual experience, puncturing the anti-colonial universe thoughtfully created by one of Britain’s most admired contemporary artists, who was recently honoured with a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for his distinguished contributions. And yet, while Shonibare’s multi-coloured pieces will always be immediately recognisable, colonial systems are more subtle and elusive than one might grasp, and beautiful textiles sometimes fail to do them justice. Perhaps one of the final rooms of the show, which focuses on the artist’s social projects and initiatives towards local artists and communities in the UK and Nigeria, portrays Shonibare’s leading role in the ongoing process of decolonisation.

Yinka Shonibare CBE: Suspended States, 2024. Installation view, Serpentine South Gallery, 2024.

Caroline Fucci for London Art Walk
April 2024