Visual art round-up: Yinka Shonibare’s headless mannequins

The British-Nigerian artist’s colourful sculptures explore postcolonial identity


Recreating the Pastoral – Yinka Shonibare; plus screenings of his films and Tadhg O’Sullivan’s documentary The Great Wall

Post Colony – Gareth Kennedy

The Plurality of Existence in the Infinite Expanse of Space and Time – Clodagh Emoe Visual

Centre for Contemporary Art, Carlow


British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare tops the bill in Visual’s spring exhibitions season, which considers “cultural identities and belonging” as a means of marking the centenary of the 1916 Rising. Shonibare is best known for his use of mannequins, usually headless, dressed in layers of colourful, boldly patterned Dutch wax print fabrics and arranged in lively sculptural tableaux. You will encounter several of them in Recreating the Pastoral, including two couples in the midst of a full-sized maze in the main gallery.

For Shonibare a large part of the appeal of wax print is that it is such a slippery cultural hybrid. It is strongly identified with Africa, especially west Africa, to the extent that it became a cultural signifier for Africans in England. But it actually originated in Dutch Indonesia, failed to take off commercially and was adapted by the English, who successfully sold it to Africans. It is authentically African in the sense that it – or its cheaper derivatives – is widely used by Africans, but it is also inauthentic in being a product of the colonial powers.

Shonibare was born in London and grew up in Lagos from the age of three before returning to England in his late teens. He starts with the idea that a single, pure identity is more than problematic. To get too obsessed with racial purity, he has observed, “leads to the gas chambers”. As he puts it, Shakespeare, Dickens, Soyinka and Achebe all contributed to his sensibility. He is “a postcolonial hybrid”, a product of a not untypical state of affairs that encourages him to trace and play with the layers and entanglements that inform the contemporary reality of hybridised cultural identities.

He is drawn to extreme, over-the-top artifice, theatre, masquerades and the carnivalesque because of his underlying conviction that identity is a construct and hence inevitably a sort of fiction; he cites Roland Barthes’s Mythologies as a key influence on his art education. It is hardly surprising, then, that he is drawn to opera. The first of his three films showing periodically in Carlow, Un Ballo in Maschera, made in 2004, derives from Verdi’s opera and the historical event behind it: the assassination of Sweden’s King Gustav III in 1792. The king was shot at a masked ball.

Shonibare’s treatment (which was made for Swedish television) is balletic and his performers are colourfully attired in wax print. That’s not all. He plays around with the gender of the protagonists and he translates the killing into a theatrical flourish: the king, who is female, falls to the ground only to rise unscathed, and the cycle of action starts again. Shonibare has said that he had in mind the war in Iraq, the uses of power and the cycles of history. As it happens, in his original treatment of the story, Verdi ran into trouble with the censors because of potential references to contemporary events. In Odile and Odette, Shonibare reworks the motif of the good-bad, white-black swans in Swan Lake, whereas Addio del Passato returns to Verdi, with Lord Nelson’s estranged wife, Frances Nisbet, played by soprano Nadine Benjamin (who is black), performing the death aria from La Traviata, wearing a wax print regency gown.

The pastoral he re-creates is a vision of the exaggerated courtliness of the European elite in the 18th and 19th centuries. Encountered in a maze of trellis and ivy, his courting couples are headless figures lavishly attired in – what else? – wax-print costumes, surrounded by roses. Their privileged leisure is framed by the maze, which presumably symbolises the imposition of order: the ruthless management and exploitation of nature and the Other that underpins the frivolous existence of the few.

There is a stodginess to Shonibare’s constellation of paintings on the end wall of the main gallery. They come across as the overly mechanical execution of a quite literal idea. However, his works on paper, coloured drawings with a lot of collage and text, are much more rhythmic and free-flowing, conveying his flair for design.

Visual is a huge venue, and a great deal of it is given over to Shonibare. Perhaps too much. Some shows benefit from spare layout, but the hectic pace he aims for, his multilayering and liking for myriad details, all gain from compression. Give it too much room for our leisurely consideration and the cheerful energy of his work tends to dissipate and cool down, like a party without enough people. And an awareness of his insistent repetition grows.

Fortress Europe

Also included in the cycle of film screenings, Tadhg O’Sullivan’s rightly praised The Great Wall draws on Kafka’s story The Great Wall of China. Kafka reflects on the paradox of building a notionally absolute barrier piecemeal, in disjointed sections. To an ominous, ambient soundtrack, O’Sullivan applies this idea of a porous barrier to “Fortress Europe”, an endless obstacle course for would-be migrants, from its southern borders to the heart of the City of London. Clodagh Emoe will develop work in collaboration with Spirasi, an NGO working with asylum seekers and refugees, throughout the season.

Plants as metaphors feature large in Shonibare’s works on paper, and Gareth Kennedy’s Post Colony centres on the history of the invasive species Rhododendron x superponticum in Ireland, charting the development of Killarney National Park from natural forest, to plantation, to deforestation, to parkland. Kennedy’s film documents a woodworking and charcoal-burning project with woodwright Eoin Donnelly, using the invasive rhododendron wood.

In a twist that Shonibare would certainly appreciate, he points out that the rogue rhododendron spread throughout the country partly because John Hinde liked to feature freshly sawn branches of its spectacular flowers in the foreground of his postcards, just to add a bit of colour.

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