The celebrated British Nigerian artist unveils his first exhibited work in Lagos, the public piece Wind Sculpture VI
Born in London in 1962, Yinka Shonibare MBE spent his formative years in Lagos before relocating back to the UK in his teens. Yet in a career that’s as global in impulse as it is in its reach, it’s taken the accomplished artist until now to exhibit his work in Nigeria. So with the late November unveiling of Wind Sculpture VI, in Ndubuisi Kanu Park, Ikeja, he’s established a type of geographically symbolic moment within his British-Nigerian orbit. Shonibare’s first Lagos-located installation is also a first public project for cultural partner, the British Council, who selected the relatively new park as the best vantage point to see the six-metre tall artwork as part of its UK–Nigeria 2015-2016 season, which aims to build relationships and audiences between the two nations. Further support came from GT Bank and London’s Stephen Friedman Gallery, longtime representative for Shonibare’s voluminous output of work.
“Nelson’s Ship In A Bottle is political but not in a narrow way. It still carries a paradox within it”
Wind Sculpture VI resembles a large fragment of Dutch wax batik fabric that, in the artist’s imagination, transcends its minimal status as a piece of cloth by dominating its surroundings. Shaped as if responding to powerful gusts of air, the arrested movement captured in this steel and fiberglass piece echoes his use of the ‘African’ cloth as a significant motif throughout his career. “I do like to introduce an element of dynamism into my imagery,” Shonibare tells Nataal on the eve of his departure for the Lagos unveiling. “Of course, that movement can also be metaphorical.”
Historically, the fabric was produced by the Dutch and traded in West Africa, eventually becoming an emblem of African identity and independence despite its colonial roots. The journey of this cloth reflects upon Africa’s much-contended place within the world – a theme regularly tackled in Shonibare’s work. His thoughts about the sense of flow within the diaspora links Wind Sculpture VI – which is one of a family of eight internationally-placed pieces – with his Nelson’s Ship In A Bottle structure, the huge replica of the HMS Victory gunship, which was on the Fourth Plinth at London’s Trafalgar Square between 2010 and 2012. “The ship’s sails are made out of African textiles and the significance of that is the fact that Nelson won the Battle of Trafalgar against Napoleon. From there, the British had the freedom of the seas and could therefore colonise different parts of the world. The result, of course, is the African diaspora.” Shonibare also has a current exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art that continues to take his interest in Admiral Lord Nelson as its focus while Nelson’s Ship In A Bottle has found a permanent home at London’s National Maritime Museum.
Shonibare’s work provides a vocally cinematic exclamation that gives voice to a gleeful interest in the ways in which African stories are infused into the global stories of epic historic battle. The eloquent visual language that links Wind Sculpture VI with the bottle sculpture came out of the process of working with the copious yards of fabric attached to the vessel. “When I designed the sails I thought, ‘Oh, they’re quite sculptural. What would happen if I were to just isolate them?’” The resulting Wind Sculpture series pleases Shonibare in that he has not only set in steel a textural African story, he’s also extended his sense of drama and performance onto the Lagos landscape.
Play and irreverent comment are luscious career-long hallmarks of almost all of Shonibare’s eye-catching output. His visually explosive roll call of works offer a compelling mash-up of cultural references and bawdy observation in the form of everything from an African print-tattooed Venus de Milo and a Warhol-styled self-portrait series to cocktail masks and animated, headless or globe-headed figures. Much of these statement pieces are infused with a sense of whimsy and humour, although religious representations of figures including Joan of Arc, Francis of Assisi, St.Peter and Rose of Lima get a respectable look-in too. Religion, race, class and globalisation are hefty topics to visualise, but Shonibare’s light touch and highly stylised approach means that there’s always beauty – no matter the intricate or theatrically sized dimensions of the piece in question.
“It’s particularly good to show the work in Nigeria now because there are not many large scale contemporary art galleries but the scene is vibrant”
His oeuvre spans painting, sculpture, photography, film and performance and has been exhibited everywhere from the Venice Biennial to Yorkshire Sculpture Park. His mid-career survey debuted at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2008 before going on a world tour of major institutions and he was elected as a Royal Academician by the Royal Academy in 2013. These are just some achievements of this celebrated artist who has not let a serious physical disability suffered since he was 18 hold him down.
The scale of Wind Sculpture VI will be a huge visual draw for Lagosians, and this – along with the riot of colours and sense of theatre that graces the work – means the colonial politics embedded within the sculpture can be academically scrutinised by visitors - or not. “You certainly want to avoid divisive ideologies within a public realm because you have a broad audience there, with different political outlooks,” says Shonibare. “I think Nelson’s Ship In A Bottle is political but not in a narrow way. It still carries a paradox within it. Some people thought it was a celebration of Nelson’s achievement, while others thought it was a protest against it.” What was also created with the ship was a giant version of a toy, “almost something out of Alice in Wonderland or Gulliver’s Travels”, a factor that speaks to Shonibare’s ultimate desire to provide platforms that unify people as opposed to dividing them.
Wind Sculpture VI has a temporary residence in Lagos until the end of January, while the other versions from the series – all shaped the same, but with different hand-painted colourscapes – are placed in Singapore, London, New York, Stockholm and Rome. His next fixture, Wind Sculpture VII, is soon to snag a permanent home outside the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. For this announcement, Shonibare recently visited the city for the inaugural African Art Award, where he was honoured alongside Kenyan artist Ato Malinda and the Ford Foundation’s Darren Walker. And a “second generation of wind sculptures” is also planned for more cities soon.
Right now, Shonibare’s upbeat energy about the Lagos installation isn’t just buoyed up by the fact that this is his debut Nigerian showing. It’s also tied in with the growth of the country’s art scene. Back in 2010 he did a talk at CCA, Lagos but he didn’t exhibit his work. In 2016, the time seems ripe for him to engage with the current zeitgeist. “It’s particularly good to show the work in Nigeria now because there are not many large scale contemporary art galleries but the scene is vibrant and this year Lagos had its first contemporary art fair.” (Read our story on the art fair, ART X Lagos here).
Shonibare has also set in motion exciting plans for an international artists’ residence space in Lekki, Lagos. “I’ve acquired the land for that and we’re going through a process of planning permission,” he says. The ‘we’ he references are architects Lola Shonibare (his sister-in-law) and Elsie Owusu OBE, whose international work includes the long-term regeneration of the historic James Fort in Jamestown, Ghana. “Hopefully we’ll start building next year. With any luck, completion will be by the end of 2019.” His current art space is titled Guest Projects London, so for the future venue, he’s thinking of going for Guest Projects Lagos. No doubt another Nigerian art space worth waiting for.
Wind Sculpture VI will be on public display in Ndubuisi Kanu Park, Ikeja, Lagos until 31 January 2017