(Note: I’ve already mentioned him on this site once before when his work came to NYC, but he’s been a personal inspiration for my creative approach to steampunk and more people should know about him!)
Yinka Shonibare, MBE, a self-described “bicultural” artist, was born in England but raised in both England and Nigeria. He is best known for his series of art pieces where coffee-colored mannequins are outfitted in eighteenth-century clothing made from brightly designed “African” fabrics.
I put “African” in quotes because the fabrics that Shonibare uses are not made in Africa at all, but are Dutch wax-printed fabrics he purchased in Brixton Market in London. When he found out the origin of these fabrics on a shopping trip, they inspired him in creating this project.
“But actually, the fabrics are not really authentically African the way people think,” says Shonibare in an interview. “They prove to have a crossbred cultural background quite of their own. And it’s the fallacy of that signification that I like. It’s the way I view culture—it’s an artificial construct.” (Quote from interview by Pernilla Holmes, Art News Online, October 2002)
Shonibare is not a steampunk, but his artistic style emphasizes what steampunk fashion can be and serves as a clear example on the overlap of fashion, culture, and politics.
To wear a certain fashion is inherently political, whether the wearer intends so or not. Steampunk, with its emphasis on history, is inherently political because, as the old adage goes, history is written by the victors. The wardrobe that a person chooses to wear is self-reflexive on their place in history and how they relate it. Some steampunks may not think twice about wearing European colonial-inspired clothing, but the messages that this fashion can send is not lost to those who realize the historical background of these pieces.
In Shonibare’s case, his work emphasizes the impact of colonialism and the “artificial construct of culture” in a world where cultural authenticity can be an illusion maintained by the powers-that-be. Even his initials MBE emphasize this: they stand for “Member of the Order of the British Empire,” an artistic honor bestowed upon him in 2005, and a title which he incorporates with his full name to bring to light the issues surrounding the legacy of colonialism today.
Moreover, what I find fascinating about his work is that Shonibare chooses not to condemn his European cultural influences, but use it as a jumping point for a conversation about the meaning of culture and the colonized’s place within it. Shonibare expresses in his art that a nation’s culture is not an island unto itself but is profoundly affected by historical events—whether beneficial or destructive. Think of the impact of past empires of the world—the Mongolian, the Islamic, the Greco & Roman, the Chinese, and not only the European ones. Their presence created much exploitation, destruction, and suffering to local peoples, but also had an irreversible effect on both the conqueror and the conquered. In terms of culture, the conqueror can choose to eliminate the native or incorporate the native; the conquered, either to assimilate or to blend; this has been the cultural conversation throughout history. Shonibare understands that culture is not static, and he takes bits and pieces out from the dark past to speak new messages for the future.
Below are a few more images of his work.
Yinka Shonibare MBE’s Official Website
Yinka Shonibare MBE on Wikipedia
Flickr slideshow from the Shonibare exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum
Articles & Reviews of Shonibare’s work featured on the James Cohan Gallery website
Profile on PBS’s Art21 Miniseries website
ETA: Thanks to gileonnen for a factual slip-up on my part with the clothing dates.