Cultured Magazine

Fall 2015

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204 CULTURED T he British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, recipient of the prestigious Golden Lion at this year's Venice Biennale, thinks of himself as a "post-colonial hybrid." He wittily alludes to his sculptures, videos, paintings, photography and performances as "mongrels," when in reality each one is either a container for a metaphor or it's a densely layered commentary about political ambiguity, identity, race, gender or class. The inspiration for one of his assemblages might be a mythological tale or a popular custom. There again, it might be a historical period, an Arthur Miller play, a philosophical movement or a Fragonard painting. In Shonibare's studio in the East End of London he supervises a team of assistants, as well as a bevy of freelance costumers, filmmakers and sculptors as they execute his provocative ideas, all of which qualify as celebratory critiques. He treats sober issues with irony and wit; he uses vivid, rich patterning and theatricality to exemplify power. He avoids moralizing at all costs; he never aims for intellectual resolution and prefers to leave his visual statements open-ended and deliberately perplexing. "To be an artist, you have to be a good liar," he maintains. "You have to know how to weave tales because you're taking your audience to a nonexistent space and telling them that it does exist." Needless to say, several rich, narrative tapestries overlap each other throughout "Yinka Shonibare MBE: Wilderness into a Garden," an 85-piece retrospective of his work at the Daegu Art Museum. Running until October 18, it's his first major exposure to a South Korean audience and simultaneously the first invitation the museum has ever extended to a British artist. "All the themes Yinka deals with relate to the current political conflicts in East Asia, especially Korea, Japan and China," says the museum's director and curator, Sukmo Kim. "They enable us to see the other side of history and make us sensitive to the social structure that controls our daily life." The fact that Daegu is known as the region's "Textile City" is more than coincidental trivia. It nuances the retrospective in an uncanny way because Shonibare's medium of choice is a textile. Many of his backgrounds and most of the outfits he stages are constructed from a signature wax resist, dyed batik. It's commonly seen as authentically African, but it actually originated in Dutch Indonesia. Characteristically, Shonibare embraces the perversity of featuring a fabric with a fabricated heritage as his foundational material. According to Shonibare, another staple of his work—headless mannequins—stems from the French Revolution, but facelessness as a universal concept transcends any one particular time. In a recent exhibit at the James Cohan gallery in New York, Shonibare replaced the heads of life-sized ballerina figurines with globes that mapped the earth's warming and tsunami trends. "He's continually introducing new ideas," says Cohan, "and our show was the first time he examined environmental concerns with a keen sense of urgency." Beyond the decorative seduction, the masquerades, the carnival atmosphere, the color and seeming whimsy of his installations, Shonibare never loses sight of a serious agenda. "We need to be mindful of so many dire things affecting our lives," he says. POETIC POLITICS Yinka Shonibare gets his largest retrospective to date, bringing his charged artwork to a whole new audience: South Korea. BY BROOK MASON

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