Imperfect Narratives: Power, Allegory, and Loss in Pièces de résistance

Date and time
Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Imperfect Narratives: Power, Allegory, and Loss in Pièces de résistance

Yinka Shonibare MBE: Movements is a tool designed by DHC/ART — Education that encourages visitors to develop and elaborate on some key concepts of the exhibition Yinka Shonibare MBE: Pièces de résistance. These concepts are migration, relationship, pleasure and dandy. This week, we present the third essay in the series which explores the idea of relationship.

Content: Relationship

Appropriating moments in political, economic, and artistic histories, Yinka Shonibare MBE’s use of allegory draws our imagination to myriad, complex relationships -- between Europe and Africa, past and present, fact and fiction, as well as the multiple, contradictory, and ever fluid elements that comprise our cultural identities and collective memories.

In deconstructing paintings, literature, and public monuments, Shonibare creates entry points to re-readings of the present that places it closer to the past than one would perhaps like to acknowledge. One’s perception of - and thus relationship to - objects, people, and events are transformed with a more skeptical sensitivity to the hidden, the unspoken, the taken for granted, the revered, the glorified. These transformations are as playful as they are cutting; Shonibare denies any moral authority, rejecting any approach to art making that could be interpreted as didactic. He instead proposes a sustained conversation that considers the complexities of origin, the dubiousness of authenticity, and the politics of representation.

Like others of Shonibare’s mannequin works, Nelson’s Jacket is both inspired by and appropriates codes of traditional museum display. With the garment’s immaculate tailoring, epaulets, decorated cuffs, and high collar, it assumes even further clout positioned behind the glass of the cabinet. The following recent encyclopedic entry speaks to the aura surrounding its namesake, the ‘reckless and brilliant’ national hero that was Lord Horatio Nelson: "...struck down by fever—probably malaria—he was invalided home, and, while recovering from the consequent depression, Nelson experienced a dramatic surge of optimism. From that moment, Nelson’s ambition, fired by patriotism tempered by the Christian compassion instilled by his father, urged him to prove himself at least the equal of his eminent kinsmen." [1] He is for Shonibare the perfect allegory for the imperialist fervor that is not so far removed from the power relationships - to which the artist acknowledges his own complicity - that feed present-day globalization. They are embedded in the canon of modern painting, the leisure activities of the upper classes, and international military strategies. More specific but no less telling, they also permeate the current marketing and design practices of the multinational company that fabricates the Dutch wax fabric of which Nelson’s Jacket is made -- and that which plays such a central role in Shonibare’s practice.

Shonibare has said "I have no anger about anything, so there’s no anger to my work… I’m not making these definite political statements: because I have agency, I can be playful… I have a lot more freedom, and there’s an indulgence that goes with that, so I can have fun with it." [2]

What is your response to this statement? In exposing the complexities of history to provoke conversations about power and identity, Shonibare also articulates his ambivalence relative to these intersecting concepts. How does this positioning shape your reading of his works? What current events or key public figures do you imagine an artist of the future might appropriate in order to better understand their socio-political and cultural realities?

DHC/ART Education

[1] Tom Pocock, "Horatio Nelson, Viscount Nelson." Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed April 9, 2015, topic/408359/Horatio-Nelson-Viscount-Nelson.
[2] Rebecca Jagoe, "Colonialism and Cultural Hybridity: An Interview with Yinka Shonibare, MBE," accessed April 9, 2015, http://theculturetrip. com/africa/nigeria/articles/colonialism-and-cultural-hybridity-an-interview-with-yinka-shonibare-mbe/%0A.

Photo: Yinka Shonibare MBE, Self Portrait (after Warhol) 2, 2013. Unique screen print, digital print and hand painted linen, 53 x 52 7/8 x 2 1/4 in. (134.5 x 134 x 5.5 cm). © Yinka Shonibare MBE, image licensed by SODRAC. Courtesy of James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai.

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