When African wax sublimates history and books

Yinka Shonibare, born in 1962 to wealthy Nigerian parents living in London, is a painter, photographer, sculptor, video artist and performer, considered to be one of the current stars of the contemporary art scene, creating works that recount the tangled historical, political and economic relationships between Africa and Europe, and which are now fetching record prices at auction. Born in London but raised in Lagos from the age of three, he trained as an artist at several London schools (Byam Shaw School of Art, Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design and Goldsmiths’ College), where he learned to emphasise his African roots. Forced to use a wheelchair since the age of 18 following an irreversible inflammation of the spinal cord, Yinka Shonibare claims his physical disability as an integral part of his identity. He pursued a flourishing career, receiving numerous prestigious awards (nominated for the Turner Prize, the Whitechapel Gallery Art Icon Award, Member of the Order of the British Empire, elevated to the rank of Commander of the Order of the British Empire) and his works are included in the permanent collections of numerous museums throughout the world (the Tate Collection in London, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the National Museum of African Art – Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Moderna Museum in Stockholm, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome and the VandenBroek Foundation in the Netherlands), the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Moderna Museum in Stockholm, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome and the VandenBroek Foundation in the Netherlands).

In the early 90s, continuing her research into her African origins, Yinka Shonibare decided to introduce wax fabrics into her designs. Based on Indonesian batik textiles but manufactured in the Netherlands since the mid-19th century and sold in West Africa, these cotton fabrics, with their bright colours, intricate patterns and wax prints, have been a symbol of African identity since the 1960s. Renowned for his extremely colourful, dynamic and humorous works of art, Yinka Shonibare takes pleasure in transmuting the classics of Western art into a firework display of multicoloured fabrics, highlighting the tragic relationship between the two cultures – that of the ‘slaves’ and that of the ‘nobles’, that of the Africans and that of the Europeans, that of the colonised and that of the colonisers – which seem to oppose each other but are nonetheless closely linked. The Anglo-Nigerian artist raises a host of questions that are more topical than ever: where do we stand in the relationship between the West and Africa? Can we really speak of the assimilation of one culture by the other? Are there still differences?

One of Yinka Shonibare’s most emblematic works are her libraries: captivating installations made up of thousands of books carefully gathered, classified and arranged on rows of shelves by the artist over a period of several years, and covered with a multitude of different types of wax, set with gold letters printed on the edges, bearing the names of the personalities behind post-colonial Africa, celebrating history, literature, the African continent and textiles themselves. Exhibited on numerous occasions around the world or acquired by renowned museums, its three libraries – one English, one American and one African – are like an invitation to settle down and discover the many riches of the vast African continent. A study area adjacent to the bookshelves and equipped with tablets is available to viewers, who can access the work’s website and learn more about the people named on the covers of the books. Visitors are also invited to submit their own stories, providing a space for discussion and participation in the project.

Firstly, the British Library, initially commissioned by HOUSE 2014, Brighton Festival and Brighton Museum and Art Gallery in 2014, was presented at the Museu Afro Brasil in São Paulo, Turner Contemporary, Margate in 2016, the Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017 and has finally been installed since 2019 at Tate Modern in London. It includes the names of first and second generation immigrants to Britain, both famous and lesser known, who have made a significant contribution to British culture and history and who represent different perspectives, both inclusive and dissident, on immigration. They include Alan Rickman, Zadie Smith, Winston Churchill, Mel B of the Spice Girls, Hans Holbein, Zadie Smith, Dame Helen Mirren, Danny Welbeck, Nigel Farage and Oswald Mosley. “The British Library is an exploration of the diversity of British identity through a poetic lens. I look forward to the public’s engagement with this work,” expressed the artist in 2014 at the time of his first exhibition.

Then, The American Library, originally commissioned by Front International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art with funds from the VIA Art Fund and with the help of James Galerie Cohan, New York, co-presented in Louisville by the Speed Art Museum and the 21c Museum Hotel, was created in 2018 then exhibited in various museums across North America and today housed at the Rennie Collection. “It is a celebration of the diverse population immigrating to the United States from abroad and to the six million black Americans who left the rural American south during the Great Migration between the 1910s and 1970s. This important moment in American history continues to make us create, debate, enlighten and educate,” explains Yinka Shonibare. Among those who have made a significant contribution to certain aspects of American life and culture, or for their courage in denouncing inequality and discrimination in America, are W. E. B. Du Bois, Maria Goeppert Mayer, Steve Jobs, Bruce Lee, Ana Mendieta, Joni Mitchell, Toni Morrison, Barack Obama, Steven Spielberg, Carl Stokes, Langston Hughes, Angela Davis, Ralph Ellison and Elizabeth Alexander and Tiger Woods.

Finally, the African Library was presented to the Norval Foundation in Cape Town in 2019. The spines of many of the books bear the names of notable figures from the continent’s past and present who supported and fought for independence, including Kwame Nkrumah, Taytu Betul, Nelson Mandela, Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Taytu Betul and Funmilayo Ransome Kuti. Other books bear the names of prominent Africans who, since self-government, have helped shape the continent’s modern identity. These names include heads of state, both good and bad, as well as names of Africans and people from the diaspora who have made a significant contribution to all aspects of African life and culture, from science to music, art, film and literature. The African Library is inspired by the emancipation of the African continent and the changes that have taken place since the European powers left power. It also examines how the continent continues to attempt to shed its colonial legacy and emerge as a modern and autonomous continent. It is a commemoration of the struggle for independence of the European colonies across the African continent and celebrates African achievements since the liberation of the continent.

Text by Christine Cibert.

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