Pleasure and its Antithesis

Date and time
Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Pleasure and its Antithesis

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 second essay in the series which explores the idea of pleasure.

Composition: Pleasure

In the worlds that Yinka Shonibare MBE creates, the viewer is submerged in a colourful masquerade involving theatricality, texture, and a saturation of the senses. Themes of decadence and excess are visually explored in his paintings, photographs, films, and most poignantly with the multitude of brightly coloured Dutch wax fabrics for his sculptures. It is a pulsating vibrancy that draws the viewer into Shonibare’s works and results in a truly pleasurable viewing experience. Pleasure is an important notion forthe artist, as he states: "I consider myself a hedonist… I think that pleasure is king – as well as a very strong basis for being subversive." [1]

If pleasure is king, it is nonetheless subversiveness that reigns in Shonibare’s empire. Because beneath the hoards of colourful fabric and the superfluous splendor that Shonibare presents, lies a powerful story. History, in all of its irony and hypocrisy, inequality and betrayal, is buried there. A history that is known but perhaps too often ignored, such as depicted in La Méduse, 2008, which makes reference to colonization, France’s slave trade, and scandal with vibrant red, yellow and pink targets and triangles on agitated sails. Alternately, Shonibare presents imagined histories, as in The Age of Enlightenment – Immanuel Kant, 2008, where Kant, dressed in lavish and playful garments, is depicted headless and without his legs. Shonibare uses beauty as his bait. Once the viewer has been dazzled by the appealing and pleasurable compositional elements of his work, they bite, and only then realize the weight of Pièces de résistance. Backhanded politics, colonization, power struggles. Pleasure’s antithesis.

Contemporary French philosopher Michel Onfray states that "hedonism suggests identifying the highest good with your own pleasure and that of others; the one must never be indulged at the expense of sacrificing the other." [2Discuss this idea in relation to Shonibare’s emphasison pleasure versus the subversive and critical questions he raises through his works.

Shonibare is not alone in using a visually seductive approach to difficult and controversial issues. Can you think of other contemporary artists who use this tactic? Do you think that it is an effective way to bring light to challenging matters?

DHC/ART Education

[1] Robert Hobbs, "The Politics of Representation," Yinka Shonibare MBE (New York: Preskl), 2008. 34.
[2] Jasmina Sopova, "Michel Onfray: A Philosopher of the Enlightenment," The UNESCO Courrier 9 (2007), accessed March 26, 2015,

Photo: Yinka Shonibare MBE, The Age of Enlightenment – Immanuel Kant (detail) 2008. Life-size fiberglass mannequin, Dutch wax printed cotton, mixed media. © Yinka Shonibare MBE / image licensed by SODRAC / Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York and Shanghai.

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