British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare MBE currently has a solo show at Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation—the museum’s first contemporary commission in over 80 years.
In this feature about him in the WSJ, he talks about his upbringing in both Nigeria and England, as well as the incident that prompted him into exploring the symbolism of Holland-produced batik textile designs that have now become synonymous with ‘African fashion’.
The son of a Nigerian lawyer, Shonibare was born in London and raised both there and in Lagos. “I’m the elite in Nigeria,” he says. “Coming here, I didn’t feel any different. But there is a perception that if you’re of a totally different race, you’re possibly of a different class.” Still, his interests lay miles from the working-class consciousness of artists like Hirst and Emin; nor was he especially eager to contribute to the political-protest art prevalent among some black English artists at the time.
In art school, he happened on to a medium that focused his interests. Challenged by a teacher to produce a so-called “authentic African artwork,” Shonibare visited a market in London to study what he’d always assumed to be African textiles, only to learn that the batiks were actually European: Since the mid-19th century they had been mass-produced in Holland, initially for the Indonesian market, and exported to Africa. “I found that more interesting than being authentic,” he says. Their lush colors and patterns also offered Shonibare, known as something of a bon vivant, the opportunity to explore beauty and extravagance. “I didn’t see aesthetic pleasure as purely a domain of the white male,” he says. “I thought I could occupy that space while challenging it as well.”
Shonibare also talks about his recently launched Guests Project Africa initiative aimed at “promoting avant-garde African art forms, from visual art and fashion to music and spoken word.”