Yinka Shonibare CBE: End of Empire
Museum der Moderne, Salzburg
June 27 – October 11, 2020
The British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare CBE (b. 1962) is one of Great Britain’s most important and versatile artists. His work explores the legacy of Western colonialism whose impact is still evident today. Shonibare is internationally known for installations featuring life-size, headless figures in historical costumes tailored from his trademark material the brightly colored Dutch wax batik fabric. The artist sees himself in the role of a ‘post-colonial hybrid’ who, by means of a subversive artist strategy, likes to select episodes of eighteenth and nineteenth-century European art and history and develops them into tragicomic scenes of human action.
In his oeuvre, Shonibare combines theatricality and irony with the depth of a historical focus and a keen sense of the absurdities of the leisure class. In a casual gesture, the artist presents the pleasures and behaviors of British nobility by arranging spectacular hunting parties and bizarre duel scenes. His monumental work Gallantry and Criminal Conversation (2002), unforgotten as one of the absolute highlights at documenta 11, presents the Grand Tour of British noblemen as excessive sexual debauchery.
In his early photograph series from the 1990s Shonibare himself slips into the role of a Victorian dandy or he appears as Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, and is celebrated in this character as the center of social life-as the only black person among white people. These theatrical appearances as well as works with headless mannequins dressed in ‘African’ batik fabrics point to the involvement of the European elites in colonialism and slavery. This is shown exemplarily in his striking work End of Empire (2016) featuring two figures dressed in the artist’s signature Dutch wax batik fabric, seated on a Victorian seesaw.
This powerful imagery imitates the shifting points of balance in world politics over the course of World War I and the ensuing colonial fallout. The figures’ heads are replaced by globes, the maps depicting geopolitical borders as they were drawn in 1917. The bodies are clothed in Victorian suits, their colonial implications skewed by the brightly colored fabric.
The entire work offers a metaphor for dialogue, balance and conflict, while symbolizing the possibility of compromise and resolution between two opposing forces. Assembling works by Yinka Shonibare CBE from the past thirty years of his career, the retrospective exhibition is scheduled to take place on the occasion of the 100-year anniversary of the Salzburg Festival (Salzburger Festspiele). It is the second solo presentation of the artist in Austria after the exhibition Double Dutch, which was curated by the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam in 2004 and travelled to the Kunsthalle Wien.