Yinka Shonibare’s Patterns of Decolonization

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Detail of view of Yinka Shonibare, Decolonised Structures series (2022–23)

LONDON — It’s fair to say that Decolonised Structures (2022–23), a series of fiberglass sculptures inspired by public statuary, are the “stars” of Yinka Shonibare’s current exhibition, Suspended States. Google the show and you will most likely see images of the brightly colored figures of Sir Winston Churchill, Queen Victoria, and Lord Kitchener. Slotting into ongoing conversations about public art and the values it projects, these works exploit their smaller size to provoke questions about the subjects’ legacies, in contrast to giant statues that overwhelm viewers into hero worship. Instead of awe, they inspire, perhaps, indifference? Instead of grandeur, humility? Their vibrant colors and prints, based on Dutch wax cotton fabrics, makes them less austere than their real-life bronze counterparts. The patterning is a typical motif in Shonibare’s work; the complex history of the fabric (often also called Ankara) symbolizes the relationship between the African continent and Western colonial powers. But by using of the fabric as a visual shorthand for “Africanness” — the power of which seems to have diminishing returns here — questions about material as a cultural signifier arise. 

If Shonibare’s aim is to explore “constructions of cultural identity in a globalised world,” as the exhibition text states, the reference to the Dutch wax cotton fabrics here throws questions back to the viewer: What, if any, are the physical materials that project Western imperial power? What are the materials, the patterns, that might stereotypically signify “Britishness,” for example? The Churchill figure is covered in a bright print reminiscent of paisley. Named for a small Scottish town instrumental in the fabric’s manufacture, the distinctive teardrop motif itself is inspired by the Persian boteh. The pattern has taken on a number of associations over time, from bohemianism and William Morris to high-end department store Liberty of London to 1960s psychedelia. The juxtaposition of Churchill and paisley-inspired African Dutch wax pattern bespeaks Shonibare’s desire to make the gallery a space where boundaries and categories are (temporarily) suspended. Yet in a gallery such as Serpentine, situated in a Royal Park a stone’s throw from Kensington Palace and defined by both Britishness and blue-chip status in the art world, how much can these be suspended?

Detil of view of Yinka Shonibare CBE: Suspended States at Serpentine, London. Pictured: “Decolonised Structures” (2022–23), fiberglass sculptures hand-painted with Dutch wax pattern, gold leaf and wooden plinths, dimensions variable (all photos Aida Amoako/Hyperallergic)

Shonibare expands on the idea of the cultural significance of buildings in the exhibition, examining the social functions of places like St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, the UN headquarters in New York, and the Chiswick Women’s Refuge in London — structures once considered to be places of asylum. The Sanctuary City series (2024) comprises one of the show’s more compelling installations, at least visually. In the darkened room, scaled-down models of these buildings and 14 others are illuminated from within. It’s intimate and ominous. The darkness of the space evokes an atmosphere of danger that one might endure before finding safety. But their promise of sanctuary feels compromised: the buildings are deserted, the city is unpopulated.

Yinka Shonibare, “African Bird Magic (Mauritius Fody & Comoro Blue Vanga)” (2023)

The Dutch wax print wallpapers the buildings’ interiors, but in this context, it loses its power. As a tool Shonibare seems to feel aids in decolonizing, here it is reduced to the equivalent of a producer’s tag that makes the artist’s work recognizably his. While hinting at many worthwhile issues, the show feels at times stuck at the ABC-123s of Shonibare’s antiwar, anti-imperialist stance and struggles to uncover something more complex. Suspended States has its moments of intrigue, but those moments are few. 

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Installation view of Yinka Shonibare, Sanctuary City series (2024)
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Installation view of Yinka Shonibare CBE: Suspended States at Serpentine, London. Pictured: “Wind Sculpture in Bronze IV” (2024)
Yinka Shonibare, “Creatures of the Mappa Mundi, Bonnacon” (2018)
Yinka Shonibare, “The War Library” (2024), detail view

Yinka Shonibare CBE: Suspended States continues at Serpentine South Gallery (Kensington Gardens, London, England) through September 1. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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