Artist Yinka Shonibare on why we should question colonial history – not topple it

Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill and Sir Charles Napier statues are dressed to impress in Dutch wax fabrics but stripped of their bronze, marble and their power.

An intention of Turner Prize-nominated artist Yinka Shonibare, who says we should question colonial history – not topple it.

He told Sky News: “I personally don’t think that, you know, you should be pulling statues down. I think that, in the same way that you wouldn’t go into a library and start burning all the books you didn’t like.

“I don’t think you can erase history.”

Shonibare’s nuanced view comes at a time when there is vociferous debate on the role statues play, from colonialist Cecil Rhodes at an Oxford college to 17th-century slave merchant Edward Colston – whose statue was pulled down in 2020 and rolled into Bristol harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest.

Image: Sculptures made of fibreglass and hand painted by Yinka Shonibare. Pic: AP

“I think that, the best thing to do is to create platforms in which people can actually have a debate to have a conversation. We also know that a person of the 19th century has different values.

“They’re not the same as a person now. And so I think that we can’t necessarily conflate the 19th century with us. So I think we need some perspective. I think that, but we should not, erase history.”

In his new exhibition Suspended States at London’s Serpentine Gallery, the artist looks at the impact of imperial ambition.

A fiberglass and hand-painted sculpture of Winston Churchill by artist Yinka Shonibare is on display during a photo call for his Suspended States exhibition, at Serpentine South in London, April 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
Image: Winston Churchill by Yinka Shonibare. Pic: AP

More than 5,000 books make a piece called The War Library, all covered in Shonibare’s signature Dutch wax fabrics.

On the spines, he’s written names of global conflicts and peace treaties from the 7th century to the present day.

One is titled Operation Grapes Of Wrath, a 1996 Israeli operation against Hezbollah.

Another is titled Gaza War, but Shonibare says he’s not taking sides or speaking on contemporaneous issues specifically.

Yinka Shonibare
Image: The artist looks at the impact of imperial ambition in new exhibition

Instead he’s trying to show history repeating itself.

“The idea there is to remind people that we’ve actually been here before, and we keep having these peace treaties. Why do we, as human beings, why do we keep doing that?

“It’s a question we need to ask ourselves.”

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He said the aim of the artwork was to archive and to remind people that “perhaps you ought to start doing something about this to kind of stop this”.

Part of the exhibition recreates buildings that have historically been safe places for the vulnerable including Notre Dame, Chiswick Women’s Refuge and United Nations headquarters – all in miniature, with the only colour being Dutch fabrics illuminated inside.

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For the Nigerian-born artist rhetoric around refugees, like British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak making migrant crossings one of his five priorities, is at odds.

“Phrases like ‘stop the boats’ is not something that I’m sympathetic with because we may go through a natural disaster here. We may be seeking refuge elsewhere. So we do have to be compassionate.

“We live in a very rich country, and I think housing should be at the top of our list.

“And I think that’s how you actually start to tackle some of the fundamental, social problems that we have… with housing, then, you can get a job. You can actually contribute to the economy.”

A visitor looks at sculptures made of fibreglass and handpainted by Artist Yinka Shonibare during a photocall for his Suspended States exhibition at Serpentine South in London, Thursday, April 11, 2024. Serpentine presents a solo exhibition of new and recent works by British Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare. The first solo exhibition of Shonibare's work for over 20 years in a London public institution, will be presented at Serpentine South from April 12 to September 1 2024. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
Image: Pic: AP

Conflict, refugees and our colonial history, Shonibare’s exhibition themes are hard-hitting and topical but all beautifully dressed.

Suspended States is on at the Serpentine South from 12 April to 1 September.

Source : Sky News