Yinka Shonibare


Must be funny, in a rich man’s world… Ysabelle Cheung speaks to Yinka Shonibare MBE about his latest exhibition in Hong Kong, Dreaming Rich

Money – dough, moolah, cash, bucks, however you want to say it – is perennially on the mind of most people, in some way or rather. But few would have taken their fascination with money as far as Yinka Shonibare, the prominent Nigerian-British art, does in his Hong Kong debut exhibition, Dreaming Rich.

“Dare to dream rich and you may lose your head, fail to dream rich and you risk dying of poverty,” reads the ominous accompanying materials to the exhibition, where a diorama installation of headless champagne-swilling children (known as the Champagne Kid sculptures) dressed in bright batik fabrics decorate the gallery space. Additional installations include a hunched over mannequin shouldering a magnificent towering display of cakes, titled Cakeman, a subtle reference to colonialism and labour, and the Bling Painting wall installation, comprising 27 paintings of Hong Kong toys. “The narrative is about the discrepancy between the wealthy and the not so wealthy – the wealth gap that exists within societies,” he explains. “This gap is also continuing to increase internationally as well.”

It is a fitting theme for a city like Hong Kong, where cage home dwellers walk alongside six figure earning bankers, and the issue of its colonial past is still a topic of contention for many. “Because of Hong Kong‘s colonial heritage, I expect they [the audience] will have an understanding of what the work is about,” Shonibare says. “Wealth and money are the exact themes of the exhibition.”

Colonialism and economy is a recurrent theme in Shonibare’s oeuvre. His most famous works – headless figures and a replica of Nelson’s HMS Victory ship in a glass bottle – include the use of Dutch wax-printed cotton, which he discovered in London’s Brixton market in the early 1990s. Shonibare has clothed many of his installation subjects in this textile, creating aristocratic Victorian dresses in a tongue-in-cheek exploration of class and race. Interestingly, the fabrics, despite their recognisable African aesthetic, are not from Africa. “The fabrics I use in the work are not authentically African. The Dutch industrially produced the fabrics for the West African market and the fabrics were a success in Africa, and they subsequently became known as ‘African textiles’,” he says. “Because of my own dual cultural background and as a result of British colonialism in Africa, I mix aspects of British culture with ‘african culture’.”

Shonibare was born in the UK but spent 15 years in Nigeria before returning to London to study at age 17. A year later, he contracted a debilitating neurological condition which, today, renders him half crippled. Thus most of the physical creation of his art is left to a team of assistants while Shonibare works on the concepts, similar to how an architect might manage a studio or a director a film.

Aside from his collection of gallery exhibited works, Shonibare also creates public installations that have become icons of the British geographical and artistic landscape. His aforementioned Nelson’s HMS Victory Ship, titled Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, was the first commissioned piece for Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth to reference the history of the Square, where the Battle of Trafalgar took place. Shonibare has also created three short films throughout his career, which have been screened at places such as the Royal Opera House in London. For his work, he’s been awarded several accolades, the most significant being Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) award for his work representing Nigeria and Britain in the art world.

It is representation, though, that Shonibare is most wishing to explore in his work and in Dreaming Rich. The children depicted in the Champagne Kid sculptures are themselves an extension of representation, not being the direct vehicles for wealth and excess themselves, but a consequence of it. “The children are simply a metaphor for excessive behaviour,” Shonibare says.

Who and what are the headless mannequins representing? Are they Nigerian, British, faux-Nigerian? These are all questions that are explored in the exhibition. “All art is a form of fiction (all art is ‘artifice’),” Shonibare concludes. “It is not reality representing. Representation is subjective; therefore all art is lying.”

Dreaming Rich Pearl Lam Galleries, until Jan 9, 2014. pearllam.com


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