Yinka Shonibare MBE, The Ghost of Eliza Jumel, 2015 (installation image). © Yinka Shonibare MBE/Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai. Photo: Trish Mayo.
As is often the case with contemporary artist Yinka Shonibare MBE, his sumptuous work is currently featured in a number of solo exhibitions worldwide. New York is host to two of these shows, with a suite of new sculptures and photographs on view at James Cohan Gallery, and an unnerving set of site-specific installations displayed throughout the (purportedly haunted) rooms of the Colonial-era residence, the Morris-Jumel Mansion. The vivid textiles and headless mannequins that characterize his work are here, in their strange splendor. So are the darker issues they evoke. As they seduce, they also warn: power is a double-edged sword.
Drawing from his own experiences, Shonibare has built his career upon his exploration of the forces that have shaped the distribution of power worldwide—with colonialism chief among them—and how this feeds into our perception of ourselves and others. Though he was raised in privilege, and grew up between England and Nigeria, he realized early on that it was his blackness that dominated how people regarded him. Speaking to the New York Times about finding his artistic voice, he once said: “I should have actually understood all along that there is a way in which one is perceived, and there’s no getting away from it.”
At James Cohan Gallery, Shonibare challenges our assumption of invincibility. For this show, titled “Rage of the Ballet Gods,” he continues his investigations into power dynamics and race, while treading into new territory: climate change. A set of three gender-bending mannequins, the so-called “ballet gods,” anchor this presentation. Representing the mythical Greek gods Apollo, Poseidon, and Zeus, the mannequins take the form of ballerinas. Holding elegant poses, they brandish weapons in one hand and their symbolic attributes in the other. Their bodies are taught with their anger at humankind, for usurping their control over nature, and wreaking havoc with the Earth.
As with his other figures, the ballet gods have caramel-colored skin, a tone the artist uses to ensure that their race remains indeterminate and to represent all skin colors. They are dressed in luxe tutus made of the vibrantly patterned fabric commonly associated with African dress, Dutch wax fabric. A defining motif in his work, this fabric is not native to Africa. Mirroring the crossing of cultures of the colonial period, it was based upon batiks from the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), and manufactured by the Dutch, who exported it to Africa.
Through his mixing of references to the forces of colonialism and the phenomenon of climate change in these figures, Shonibare suggests that there is parity between the enforced domination of populations and of nature. He also reminds us that every action has ramifications. This reminder is reflected in the three other mannequins in the show, a girl and boy sprouting butterfly wings, and a male figure outfitted in a spacesuit with his worldly possessions strapped to his back. They are poised for takeoff to escape the mess we have made on Earth and begin anew elsewhere—hopefully having learned from history, so as not to repeat our mistakes.
Yinka Shonibare MBE, Girl on Scooter, 2009 (installation image). Ann and Mel Schaffer Family Collection © Yinka Shonibare MBE/Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai. Photo: Trish Mayo.
History is palpable at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, situated atop a hill in Manhattan’s northern reaches. This relic of America’s Colonial period once housed and hosted the nascent republic’s elite, including General (later President) George Washington and his fellow Patriots, who used it as a temporary headquarters during the Revolutionary War (1775-83). Such a loaded site serves as a ripe setting for Shonibare’s sculptural interventions, situated throughout its darkened rooms, and presented as the exhibition, “Colonial Arrangements.”
Yinka Shonibare MBE, Boy Doing Headstand, 2009 (installation image). Collection of Jane and Leonard Korman © Yinka Shonibare MBE/Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai. Photo: Trish Mayo.
Yinka Shonibare MBE, Seated Girl, 2009 (installation image). Private Collection © Yinka Shonibare MBE/Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai. Photo: Trish Mayo.
A large door off of a grand portico leads into the mansion’s entryway, to the right of which is its formal dining room. One of the artist’s interventions may be discovered here. Dressed in a suit of Dutch wax fabric, with a globe in place of a head, a young male mannequin stands on a black platform, playing a violin. Race-less, or of mixed-race, he is positioned at the most charged place in the room, the threshold between the servants’ alcove and the dining room proper, domain of the masters.
Yinka Shonibare MBE, Planets in my Head, Arts, 2011 (installation image). Collection of Barbara Karp Schuster © Yinka Shonibare MBE/Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai. Photo: Trish Mayo.
Within this figure, the colonizers and the colonized are inextricably bound. That he plays the violin and is clothed in a European-style suit suggests that he is the progeny of the white, ruling classes, who valued music as a part of a refined education. But he stands between the masters’ and the servants’ realms of the household, garbed in fabric with distinct associations to Africa. Such features position him among the serving classes of African slaves. Here again, Shonibare demonstrates how history comes to define us—only now he suggests that there is no escape from the consequences of our actions.