Communications in cloth

Elizabeth Kutesko on “Yinka Shonibare, MBE, Fabric-ation”, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield, until 1st September

“Fabric-ation” is about Yinka Shonibare’s ideas of cloth as a system of cultural signs and ethnic stereotypes. With more than 30 exhibits, all made between 2002 and 2013, it is the largest exhibition of his work to date. It includes sculpture, photography, film, painting, music and performance, as well as textiles. Shonibare’s recent public sculpture, especially his Nelson's Ship in a Bottle, 2010, displayed in Trafalgar Square, London from 2010 to 2012, was a suitable, large scale preamble to this Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) show, where his two open-air pieces, the six-foot Wind Sculptures make their debut.

Shonibare was made a MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) in 2005 and has since ironically incorporated his honour as part of his “brand name”: “It was the last thing you would have expected of me.” This styling is of a piece with the paradox of his work as a whole: on the one hand, claiming to be rigorously critical of colonialisation and empire (“I am here to protest” ), and, on the other, poking fun at contemporary culture with commonplace figures, model ballerinas, aliens, astronauts, children, foxes, goats, and headless mannequins, which he clads in flamboyantly patterned cloth and casts in various poses, occasionally relaxed and pensive, but frequently dancing, flying, tumbling, running, and firing shots. These works fill the well-lit, minimal space of YSP’s Underground Gallery.

In Little Rich Girls, 2010, a wall of Victorian-style children’s dresses, cheaply manufactured in Dutch-made wax print cloth inspired by Javanese batik for the West African market, Shonibare exposes the arbitrariness of the meanings assigned to the cloth in both Africa and the West. Batik prints are thought to signify “African-ness” to Westerners, but in Africa they are status symbols because they are foreign-made. Shonibare's “deconstruction” of preconceptions about Africa is brought up to date with Revolution Kids, 2012: fox-headed teenagers dressed in garish outfits dance wildly and brandish replicas of Colonel Gaddafi’s golden 9mm Browning Hi Power handgun and BlackBerry phones, testifying to the vanity of power worldwide, and the efficiency of social media in mobilising thousands to riot.

Shonibare frequently claims his work to be a critique of colonial history, but the exhibition seems more like visual entertainment; perhaps, this refusal of definition is Shonibare's point.

Elizabeth Kutesko is a PhD student at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London. Her special subject is the history of dress.

Published Wed, 08 May 2013 01:03:00 GMT

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