Let’s continue that conversation with the British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, whose retrospective just opened at the Brooklyn Museum.
LACAYO: When did you first decide to take a mannequin and decapitate it and dress it in those “authentic” African fabrics?
SHONIBARE: In 1995, something like that. It was a festival in London called Africa ’95 and I was commissioned by the Vatican. I made this piece that now belongs to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It’s called How Does a Girl Like You Get to Be a Girl Like You? That line is from Hitchcock, in North by Northwest.
LACAYO: What made you want to put the cloth on a figure and not just hang it on a wall? Or do it as a painting?
SHONIBARE: I was thinking about colonialism. What am I doing in the U.K., why am I speaking English? And I was thinking about the aristocracy of that time. The idea was to make effigies of the aristocracy and then cut their heads off. And then dress them in these fabrics as a metaphor for things now.
LACAYO: When I first saw one of your pieces, I didn’t know that what we always think of as authentic African fabric is actually Indonesian fabric brought to Africa by the Dutch who colonized Indonesia. There’s nothing African about it except the fact that Africans adopted it, but because they did, it became a global symbol of African-ness. What it demonstrated to me, in a tongue in cheek way, was that identities are constructed out of whatever are the materials at hand. That they’re inventions.
SHONIBARE: For me it’s more about parody and masquerade. In the Caribbean, even at the time of slavery, they would have carnival days. If you were a slave or a poor person, you could dress up as an aristocrat. Carnival day was the one day that the aristocrats were the working class. It was the one day you could be whatever you wanted to be.
LACAYO:There’s a well known book by a Russian theorist named Mikhail Bakhtin that presents a theory about medieval carnivals and the way they subverted social hierarchies and satirized sacred ceremonies, if only for a few days. The low were raised high, they could masquerade as their “superiors”. It’s a spirit that survives a bit in Mardi Gras.
SHONIBARE: Yes, and when you see African textiles in the media, it’s usually in a report about poor Africans. So when I switched those fabrics to become aristocratic clothing, there’s a sense of playing with this colonial relationship.
LACAYO: You also have some mannequins dressed in African cloth to parody specific figures of the 18th-century Enlightenment like Adam Smith, the first theorist of capitalism, and d’Alembert, the French physicist and mathematician. When I see them dressed in those outfits it says to me that reason, which was the faith those men lived by, wasn’t enough by itself to understand the complexities of the world that Western civilization, which liked to think of reason as its foundation, was creating. It had a dark side that reason didn’t want to know about. The French called their own colonialism the “mission civilatrice”, but it was usually accomplished at gunpoint.
SHONIBARE: And now we use reason and democracy to justify invading Iraq. We used that kind of civilizing zeal and mission that was used in the 19th century to invade Iraq.
LACAYO: Let’s talk about the staged photo pieces you started making in the 1990s. In Diary of a Victorian Dandy you made four elaborate photos of a day in the life of a 19th century man-about-town with yourself playing the man. You also did a series of pictures illustrating scenes from Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, with yourself in the role of Dorian. Were you looking at photographers like Jeff Wall and Cindy Sherman who set up their own scenes?
SHONIBARE: I’m interested in Jeff Wall and those artists but I was looking more at traditional narratives like Hogarth’s. I was thinking about how Hogarth’s narratives like the The Rake’s Progress are more like film stills. The photographs also opened up a whole new set of issues. They were like film stills so it was a like a logical next step to doing film. The problem of course is that doing film projects can be quite costly. I’m still in the process of trying to explore more. But not as much as I’d like to, because of the financial constraints. Those projects are not cheap to make. I use HD cameras, they’re elaborate productions.
LACAYO: You have two video pieces in the Brooklyn Museum show, Un Ballo in Maschera, an ensemble work about the assassination of the King of Sweden in 1792, and Odile and Odette, which uses just two dancers, one white and one black, to play with themes from Swan Lake. Both of them are effectively dance videos. Who does the choreography?
SHONIBARE: I tend to work with collaborators. For Odile and Odette it was a contact from the Royal Opera House. For Un Ballo in Maschera it was a contact through a friend of mine who is a dancer.
LACAYO: Un Ballo in Maschera is based on the true story of the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden, who was shot at a masked ball at court. It’s the story that Verdi used as the basis for his opera of the same name. What drew you to that story?
SHONIBARE: When the invasion of Iraq was first announced, I was in Sweden in a residency. Gustav III was fighting wars with Denmark and Russia. Things were not great at home, but he had these expansionist ambitions. So I was thinking about America and expansionist ideas and the cost. Gustav spent a lot of public money on this useless project, his wars, ambitions that weren’t going anywhere. Most people have no idea that video is about Iraq.