[This article was originally published in an altered format by The Dallas Morning News]
Yinka Shonibare MBE deftly explores the complexities and contradictions of colonialism in his eponymous FOCUS show at the Fort Worth Modern. His own background is well suited to the project; he’s a black Nigerian man who grew up in England. He speaks both English and Yoruba and his father was a barrister while his great-great grandfather was an African chief. Thus, by default, he’s been a liminal figure his entire life. When he was named a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE), by Queen Elizabeth II, he opted to use the honorific professionally — it functions as both part of his identity as well as a self-conscious nod to the post-colonial world and its ironic contradictions.
Shonibare’s critique of imperialism is blatant in his work, “Scramble for Africa.” It’s a tableaux of fourteen headless (thoughtless) mannequins seated at an enormous dining table. The figures point and even pat one another on the back as they examine a map of Africa. The artist explains, “I wanted to represent these European leaders as mindless in their hunger for what the Belgian King Leopold II called ‘a slice of this magnificent African cake.’” To amplify the depiction of their confused and misguided acquisitive sensibility, the figures are swathed in batik fabric, broadly understood to be African in origin. As it turns out, the material initially came from Indonesia, was wildly peddled by sellers in Holland and subsequently gained worldwide popularity. It’s not specifically “African” at all. It’s emblematic of the myriad things that defy facile presuppositions and serves as a reminder that crafted history and reality are often very different things.
In another work, “La Méduse,” Shonibare alludes to Théodore Géricault’s famous painting, “The Raft of the Medusa.” The latter work occupies a prominent spot in the Louvre and operates as an icon of French Romanticism. It depicts the aftermath of a ship run aground while French subjects were en route to wrest Senegal from British rule. The effort resulted in starvation, dehydration, madness and even cannibalism. In the hands of Shonibare, the ship is reworked and reimagined; its sails are made of fabulously colorful “African” fabric and it’s depicted, sans travelers, at the moment it’s capsizing in roiling waves. The work is a photograph of a model placed against a moody and thunderous sky. It’s clearly a reexamination of a misguided venture that was foiled — even as titans of imperial “progress” sought to control a portion of West Africa that wasn’t theirs to plunder. The writer Wole Soyinka was among the first to deploy the phrase, “Coca-colonization of the world,” and the ramifications of what he underscored are still being explored in a variety of media, including those of Mr. Shonibare. It’s substantive fodder for reflection and a call for deeper, more nuanced thought.