The Divine Yinka Shonibare MBE at Brooklyn Museum

With summer, we all get into a tropical mood, right? I don’t know about you, but for me, tropical can take on a multitude of nationalities. A bit of India, which means several trips to the local Desi neighborhoods — never more than a short train ride away in NYC — for food, sweets and bangles, or a hint of Jamaica, which means either a short walk to Daphne’s Caribbean Express on East 14th Street for some take-out breakfast of ackee and saltfish or a sit-down meal at the pricey but worth it Negril Village in the West Village. But of course, no tropical mood can be complete without a bit of Africa, the great land of Red, Black, Green and Gold!

Though it changes every year — from Ethiopian food and cloths, to Kenya’s beaded Masai jewelry, to Ghanian traditional Ashanti Kente cloths — lately I have been quite drawn to Nigerian culture. Maybe it was watching the insightful documentary ‘Nollywood Babylon’ at MoMA, or maybe I got hooked during the recent Muslim Voices Festival, which had a beautiful souk market outside BAM featuring lots of West African wares, but this love affair with all things Lagos turned a new corner for me today, after viewing Yinka Shonibare‘s stunning artwork at the Brooklyn Museum.

The British-born, Nigerian-bred Shonibare is at once a visionary, a fashion designer, an artist and a satirist. He makes as much of a silent statement with his beautiful artwork as any verbose journalist or writer could make about the problems and issues of the region. His beautifully crafted garments, worn by headless mannequins of caramel complexions would make any hot blooded woman swoon at the thought of being able to wear them as couture garments of the utmost style. But the strong message he delivers lies within the intricate web woven by many centuries of colonialism in Africa, particularly West Africa. It’s a shameful past, the repercussions of which are still playing out in modern day Nigeria, a country plagued by corruption, strife and massive unemployment.

About his use of ‘Dutch’ African wax print fabrics, the artist has said: “African fabric signifies African identity, rather like American Jeans (Levi’s) are an indicator of trendy youth culture. In Brixton, African fabric is worn with pride amongst radical or cool youth. It manifests itself as a fashion accessory with Black British women in the head wrap form and it can also be found worn by Africans away from the home country. It becomes an aesthetics of defiance, an aesthetics of reassurance, a way of holding on to one’s identity in a culture presumed foreign or different.”

The Brooklyn Museum is such a wonderful venue for this life-sized work. Most of the fourth floor houses the main exhibit, as well as a hide-and-seek installation of children scattered within its Period Rooms titled ‘Mother and Father Worked Hard So I Can Play’. Then the exhibit finished on the first floor, with a room dedicated to ‘Leisure Lady (with Ocelots)’ shown here at left, a darkened theater showing a 32 minute film titled ‘Un Ballo In Maschera’ which featured wax print dresses worn in a Venetian Commedia Dell’Arte setting and then the stunning but sadly poignant ‘Scramble for Africa’. This last piece, a detail seen above right, sums up the struggles of a continent which was subdivided and colonized to create strife and conflict among its people. It also befittingly ends the exhibit, in the last room of the first floor.

Yinka Shonibare MBE continues through September 20th 2009 at Brooklyn Museum. The Museum is open every day except Mondays and Tuesday. Take the 2 or 3 train there ASAP and you’ll thank me for it!!

All photos ©2009 E. Nina Rothe

Bookmark and Share

Leave a Comment