Yinka Shonibare is the London-based artist of Nigerian descent best known for those headless mannequins dressed in 18th and 19th century costumes made from very neo-colonial cloth. “Neo-colonial” is this instance means that what we tend to think of as “traditional” African textiles turn out to be manufactured by the Dutch, who borrowed them from the Batik patterns of Indonesia — from Java, to be precise — when it was their colony. Then the Dutch marketed these Javanese textiles to Africans, who adopted them as “their own”, more or less. Got that?
Shonibare has a new mid-career retrospective that just arrived at the Brooklyn Museum. Though he also paints and makes films, he’s best known as a conceptual artist. His main topic is colonialism, its false assumptions and unpredicted legacies. He tackles the problem with a sense of humor, making headless dummies that are a nod, if that’s the word, to the guillotined aristocracies of 18th-century France, and a sign for the absent self-awareness of the ruling elites of all eras. The problem for conceptual art — meaning art in which the idea matters more than the execution or who executes it — is that it often doesn’t give you much to look at. Shonibare solved that problem years ago by dressing his mannequins in Wild Style combinations of those retina-burning “African” prints.
The other problem is repetition. Since you don’t have to carry out the work yourself, once you arrive at an interesting idea, the temptation to just churn it out is irresistable. (Or even one that’s not so interesting. This might be called the Damien Hirst Dot-and-Butterfly Dilemma.) Repetition is not a temptation that Shonibare has always avoided, but the Brooklyn Museum show, which was organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Australia, sidesteps the issue by settling on just a choice selection of his headless figures and mixing them with his paintings and films.
This is what I said about it all in Time this week.