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The Essential Art of African Textiles: Design Without End

September 30, 2008–April 5, 2009

Yinka Shonibare, MBE (British, b. 1962)

In 1990 I developed another way of questioning ideas about cultural authenticity. I started to use "African" fabric purchased from Brixton Market in my work. Batik, which is commonly known as "African" fabric, has its origins in Indonesia and is industrially produced in Holland and Manchester for export to Africa where it is made into traditional dress. The adoption of the fabric, particularly in West Africa, has led to the development of local industries which also manufacture fabrics. . . . In my own practice, I have used the fabrics as a metaphor for challenging various notions of authenticity both in art and identity.

—Yinka Shonibare (London, 1996)

Yinka Shonibare's use of industrially manufactured "Dutch wax prints" in his work reflects on the most recent chapter of the history of trade between Africa and the West, the nature of that relationship, and assumptions about creativity and identity. Shonibare's sharp insights into this history reflect his own personal trajectory of being born in England to Nigerian parents, spending formative years of his youth in Lagos, and pursuing his vocation as an artist in Britain. With thoughtful ingenuity, visual poetry, satirical humor, and aesthetic panache, his work subverts misconceptions about racial, class, and cultural identity and distinctions between high and low art. Trained as a painter and a graduate of Goldsmith's College of the University of London, Shonibare has developed his ideas in a variety of media that include installation art, photography, and film. In each of these, he has drawn upon cloth as a prominent formal element that suggests to the viewer that things are not what they may appear to be at first glance. His use of this complex signifier has ranged from austerely stretching it as a canvas to lavish deployment in theatrical tableaux that foil established icons of Western culture.

In 2004 Shonibare was nominated for the Turner Prize and in 2005 was awarded the title Member of the British Empire in recognition of his service to the nation. His proposal for a public sculpture for the Fourth Plinth site in London's Trafalgar Square was recently selected. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Australia, has organized a mid-career retrospective of his work, which will be on view this fall, followed by a presentation at the Brooklyn Museum.