Originally published on This Is Tomorrow, April 2013.
A carnival of sumptuous colour draws us in to Stephen Friedman Gallery. Yinka Shonibare MBE has created his most ambitious sculptural assemblage to date: a life-sized re-imagination of Leonardo da Vinci’s fifteenth-century mural ‘The Last Supper’. Shonibare’s characters enjoy a lavish feast of oysters, wild boar, strawberries and champagne, dressed in chic Victorian suits fashioned from West African fabrics. Initially seductive and stimulating, the scene is, in an instant, repellent. Luxury begins to looks like extravagance. The protagonists have descended into lascivious, hedonistic behaviour. In place of Jesus, Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, reigns supreme, suggesting a comparison with the decadent final years of the Roman Empire. The air of imminent disaster is made all the more urgent by the decapitation of all characters present.
Shonibare’s exhibition ‘POP!’ provides a social commentary on the excesses of the financial industry and the pursuit of power and money that contributed to the current economic crisis. The artist does not shy away from dealing with the issues directly. In his series ‘Champagne Kid’ (2013) he arms his mannequins with empty bottles of Crystal and poses them falling unceremoniously from their wooden chairs. A certain anger and resentment comes across in his direct approach which will resonate with the viewer.
Shonibare refuses to pander to antique Western expectations that, as an artist with roots in Africa, his art should somehow be concerned with specifically racial identity. Although initially appearing to adopt an African trope by using West African batik material in his work, Shonibare in fact makes a mockery of the idea. In reality, far from being a true signifier of African authenticity, the fabric has a chequered and international history. It only became popular in West Africa in the 1960s after being exported there by the British who had copied the design from its original manufacturers in Dutch Indonesia. Shonibare refutes ideas of cultural authenticity. He cuts the heads from the mannequins he dresses in the material in order to deny them racial identity.
Instead, within western artistic tradition Shonibare’s work is deeply reliant on art history. Reconfiguring da Vinci, he makes a move to reclaim traditional Western art as his own. Elsewhere in the exhibition Shonibare creates his self-portrait in the style of Andy Warhol’s ‘Camouflage’ (1986). He uses patterns from his trademark batik textiles, as Warhol used military camouflage, to obscure his face. In both these theatrical reconstructions of art history, Shonibare questions art historical authenticity. Fake, fabrication and reproduction reveal art itself as a clumsy construction.
Shonibare addresses these big issues of power, identity and authenticity with his typical dose of irony and good humour to temper the blows. The exhibition is a fabulous visual feast as well as a welcome contemporary parody. Shonibare deals, tongue in cheek, with vital, relevant subjects and for that reason he is one of the public’s few heroes of British contemporary art.