In the first of this new series of A brush with…, Yinka Shonibare talks to Ben Luke about his influences—from writers to musicians, film-makers and, of course, other artists—and the cultural experiences that have shaped his life and work.
Shonibare was born in 1962 in London to Nigerian parents and moved to Lagos in Nigeria when he was a child. He returned to London for his fine art studies at Byam Shaw School of Art and Goldsmiths College. He explores race, class and constructions of cultural identity through sculpture, installation, painting, photography, film and other media. His signature material is Dutch wax fabric, which he is able endlessly to repurpose and recontextualise.
He chose this material precisely for its complex and loaded history: it was originally inspired by Indonesian batik, mass-produced by the Dutch and then sold to European colonies in West Africa. Dutch wax fabric eventually became a signifier of independence and culture in Africa and its diaspora. Through references to Western art history, film and literature Shonibare uses this textile to playfully, even provocatively, explore the validity of national identities and the cultures that inform them.
He discusses his perennial fascination with William Hogarth and Francisco Goya, and his admiration for contemporary artists as diverse as Cindy Sherman, David Hammons and Paul McCarthy, who he describes as “Hogarth x100”. He explains his love of opera—the total artwork—and contemporary dance. And he reflects on the consistent environmentalist strand in his work. Plus he gives insight into his studio life and answers our usual questions, including the ultimate: what is art for?
• Yinka Shonibare CBE RA: Free The Wind, The Spirit, and The Sun, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London, 6 October-11 November
• Yinka Shonibare CBE: Ritual Ecstasy of the Modern, Cristea Roberts Gallery, London, 22 September-4 November
• Shonibare’s public work Hibiscus Rising, commissioned by the David Oluwale Memorial Association for Aire Park, Leeds, as part of Leeds 2023, is unveiled on 25 November.
• Between April and September 2024, Shonibare will have a solo exhibition at the Serpentine Galleries, London. He will also participate in Nigeria’s Pavilion at the 60th International Venice Biennale from April 2024.
This podcast is sponsored by Bloomberg Connects, the arts and culture app.
The free app offers access to a vast range of international cultural organisations through a single download, with new guides being added regularly. They include several museums and galleries in the UK and US where Yinka Shonibare has shown his work, from the Brooklyn Museum in New York to Camden Art Centre in London and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. If you download the app you’ll find that, among much else, the guide to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park has audio and video content on its exhibition programme, including the Austrian artist Erwin Wurm’s first UK museum exhibition, which continues until April 2024. It also has a feature in which you can explore all of the outdoor sculptures on display in the 500-acre park, and gather artists’ perspectives on the open-air works.