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Yinka Shonibare MBE

November 3, 2008

The highlight this week was definitely visiting the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) on Sunday. Whilst in Sydney for a beautiful wedding, I took the opportunity to see the UK artist, Yinka Shonibare’s self-titled exhibition encompassing 12 years of his artistic practice.

What a stunning show! This is the first exhibition at a major institution that has truly moved me in quite some time.

The MCA website concisely summarizes: “From his eye-catching headless mannequins to engaging photographic narratives, Shonibare explores ideas about contemporary African identity, the legacy of European colonialism, class structures and social justice. Shonibare refers to himself as a ‘postcolonial hybrid’, having been born in England and raised in Nigeria before relocating to London at age 17. This exhibition represents the most comprehensive showing of the artist’s work to date.”

Besides the extraordinary colour and pattern in the works, historical references were delivered with considered irony across all mediums (painting, installation, photography and film), which made for thoughtful pondering and decoding.

In many of the works, Shinobare uses the juxtaposition of traditional African fabrics in authentic and quintessential 18th century dress as a visually powerful device in positioning the dividing of African states by European colonialists in both a time and race context. The work “Scramble for Africa” articulates this particular event both passionately and poetically in the poses of the headless mannequins arguing across the table and in their contrasting costumes which blend and identify both race and power. It’s interesting to note that the fabrics used were printed in Europe and bought in Brixton, London!

My absolute favourite work is from his foray into film “Odile and Odette” influenced by Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The ballet is usually performed by two ballerinas – Odile in black signifying a certain malign intent and Odette in white. Instead, Shonibare uses two dancers, one black and one white composed in a framed ‘mirror’ dancing in perfect synchronization as if one is a reflection of the other. Again, the costumes are mesmerizing in their jewel-like African fabric as is the sound of the ballet shoes on the dance floor, totally unmasked by any other sound or music. It’s very tribal, like a war dance, but vulnerable too.

Of course, the entire time I spent viewing the works, my mind was in overdrive contemplating the fabrics’ patterns and colours and their placement next to each other… naturally, I had to buy the catalogue!

The exhibition continues until 1 February 2009 and I thoroughly recommend a look/see before it tours to the States… and it’s free!

Having some wins of my own with new explorations into the current motif I’m working up. I’m looking mostly at crossing traditional textile methods of decoration with that of paper and print to see how they impact on the motifs themselves. It’s making for interesting results! More on that front next week…

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