We speak to the celebrated artist at ART X Lagos 2018 about his homecoming to the city that shaped him
Undoubtedly one of the most formidable draws of ART X Lagos 2018 was the presence of Yinka Shonibare MBE. The fair’s curated projects this year centred its attentions solely on this acclaimed British Nigerian artist, who presented an enticing exhibition documentation of his career to date and also treated us to an insightful keynote conversation. “Oftentimes with leading contemporaries of this stature, there is no access to their work in Lagos, so we thought, let’s not just have a talk, let’s show his work and his influences, too. What might seem obvious to do in London takes a lot of skill and negotiation to make happen here but we’re a young fair that is working hard to raise the bar,” explains Missla Libsekal, who masterminds the fair’s non-commercial projects. “I wanted to express the importance of materiality in Yinka’s practice, so we have one recent sculpture [Planets in My Head (Trumpet Boy), 2018], and three older films [Un Ballo En Masquera, 2004; Odile and Odette, 2005; Addio del Passato, 2011] that help to show his capacity to push his mediums.”
Shonibare’s participation was not only an impressive coup for West Africa’s premier international art fair – this third edition being its most successful yet and which also boasted the first public display of Ben Enwonwu’s Tutu in over 40 years - but was something of a first for the London-born and based artist, too. Having spent his formative years in Lagos in the 1970s (“I used to do art even then. I’d go to weekend workshops and it was a happy childhood,” Shonibare tells us.), he’s stayed connected the city yet has rarely exhibited in the place that has been so integral to the personal themes of colonialism and globalisation that fuels his works.
The only previous notable occasion was in 2015-2016 when Shonibare’s Wind Sculpture VI was installed in Ndubuisi Kanu Park, Ikeja in partnership with the British Council. “It was great to talk to local students and feel so much enthusiasm for the piece,” he says. “One of the reasons I do public sculpture is that I want the work to be as accessible as possible. You don’t have to be intimidated by being in a white cube, which is what makes it such an important part of my practice.”
So now to return to be honoured by ART X Lagos was a homecoming for the artist whose oeuvre naturally resonates deeply with Nigerians. “I’ve been surprised by how many people here know my work and have been following it for a long time. It’s also fantastic to witness arts and culture becoming so much part of the social calendar of the city,” he says. “I wanted to show the wide range of work – the installations, sculptures, paintings, films, photography – and to show that all of it, in one way or the other, is connected to my own history and the colonial history that makes up my identity. It’s an exploration of identity through the history of art, and it’s an expression of contemporary Africa.”
That’s one reason why he so often uses wax print in his works – the Dutch-made textile that has long been synonymous with West African style and aesthetics. Trumpet Boy for example, is a fibreglass mannequin of a child wearing a Victorian-style suit made from wax print, a celestial globe for a head, and a trumpet raised up to imaginary lips. It follows in the footsteps of his expansive tableaux of characters in similar period costumes that make wry commentary on the single narrative of the West’s cultural canon. Meanwhile in Odile and Odette, we see two dancers from The Royal Ballet – one white, one black – both wearing wax print tutus and mirroring each other’s graceful movements as they perform a segment from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake – the only thing separating them being a Baroque gold picture frame. “I work with things that people know. It’s like pop art in that I’m referencing popular culture so that you can relate to the work rather than trying to reproduce some version of European art. I’m not interested in doing that. I’m interested in expressing the context I grew up in.”
Next, Shonibare looks forward to a very special project in Lagos - the opening of his international artist residency, which he hopes will become a place of cultural exchange when it opens in 2020. Designed by architects Lola Shonibare and Elsie Owusu OBE, there will be two locations, one in Lekki and one 45 minutes outside of the city. “I’ve acquired the land and we broke ground this year so it’s a very exciting time,” he says. “The central location will have a small gallery and studio space and the rural one will be a farm where we’ll grow our own food and where sculptors can work outside. It’s only 2.5 acres, so it can be sustainable, productive and employ local people. It’s for artists from all over the world and all over Africa and all over Nigeria. This is a slightly utopian idea but that is what I want to do.”
He has run Guest Projects in east London on similar principles for the past decade. The studio welcomes emerging artists across disciplines (visual arts, dance and music) free a charge for one-month residencies, during which they are encouraged to create their own “festival of ideas”. This new space in Lagos is a natural next step and also speaks to Shonibare’s global influence with achievements too many to mention.
From his Turner Prize nomination in 2004 – the same year he was awarded the MBE – to his mid-career survey, which opened at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2008 before travelling the world. From his public commission Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, which was displayed in Trafalgar Square for two years, to being elected as a Royal Academician by the Royal Academy in 2013. From having works in collections including the Tate and Victoria & Albert Museum in London, Museum of Modern Art in New York and Moderna Museet in Stockholm to his recently concluded solo show at Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg and solo presentation at The Fitzrovia Chapel with Stephen Friedman Gallery, the accolades go on and on.
“My work is an exploration of identity through the history of art, and it’s an expression of contemporary Africa”
Currently on show at Leicester’s Attenborough Art Centre is Criminal Ornamentation, a soon to tour exhibition curated by Shonibare for the Arts Council Collection. It explores ornamentation and pattern as a means of social and political expression through the works of such artists and designers as Bridget Riley, Edward Lipsi and Alexander McQueen. In addition, his ever expanding family of Wind Sculptures continue to sail across continents – Wind Sculpture VII has found a permanent home in front of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington while Wind Sculpture (SG) III will be unveiled at the Norval Foundation in Cape Town next January. So what could possibly be left on Shonibare’s bucket list? A major solo show in Lagos, perhaps? “I’m not sure yet. Due to the large scale of many of my works I need a certain type of location but maybe I can do a show in the spaces I’m building here now. We’ll see!”