By Mike McLaughlin
The Brooklyn Paper
The new Yinka Shonibare exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum is a stimulating cultural event for the hot summer months when intellectual activity typically maxes out with the light lift of a beach read.
The show, now through Sept. 20, is a colorful explosion of the renowned British-Nigerian artist’s works exploring politics, sex and power (and is masterfully done compared to the debacle by South Carolina’s governor). It’s simply a highlight of the season’s cultural circuit.
Shonibare is no one-trick pony. He tackles these themes via an assortment of paintings, films and sculpture.
“I don’t want to be fixed in any form or technique,” the 47-year-old artist told the cream of New York’s press corps last Thursday at the Brooklyn Museum. “I don’t rule out any way of working.”
The collection of 20 multi-media pieces transcends time and space, depicting power struggles and race relations in the bedroom, in the halls of government, and elsewhere in a 19th-century setting, but with bursts of a diffuse, modern world, such as the recurring use of Dutch-made fabrics for African export.
This is nowhere more apparent than in two of his large installations, both of which use headless mannequins robed in the bright wax fabric. One, called the “Scramble for Africa,” is a recreation of the 1884 Berlin Conference, this time with headless dummies representing the European powers, carving up Africa for colonial conquest. That imperial pursuit is juxtaposed with another scene from the same era, but this time the mannequins, on holiday, satisfy carnal desires, giving a jolly good rogering to models contorted into a number of supple poses.
“He’s very interested,” said Judy Kim, the Brooklyn Museum’s curator of exhibitions, “in what power allows people to do.” (Aren’t we all?)
Also lurking are deeper questions of identity. Shonibare, a native Nigerian, regularly tells the story about an art teacher who asked him why his work wasn’t more African. He didn’t respond by infusing his ethnic roots in his work, instead, he’s explored the very question of authenticity and heritage.
One can imagine that Shonibare inwardly is in fact repelled by the history he references, but his work isn’t a strident denunciation of the excess or abuse of power.
“Aside from the identity and politics and issues of power, there’s a great sense of humor in all the work,” Kim said.
Even though Shonibare creates in several media, the themes are consistent through his work.
If you’ve seen Shonibare’s sculptures, you’ll recognize his style in his canvasses, such as a series called “Diary of a Victorian Dandy.” At the center of all the paintings is a black man, reposed in his bed, playing billiards, holding forth at a ball and always surrounded by white people.
The installations are dazzling like a kaleidoscope, and not just because they’re so colorful, but also because they suggest so much movement and energy. The same goes for his paintings, lively and ambiguous scenes — a provocative combination.
“Often people focus on the identity and the politics — that’s clearly a big part of it. But what makes it more interesting and accessible is that it’s visually sumptuous,” said Kim. “Everything just pops. And I think he’s really successful in marrying form and content.”
One element of the show that doesn’t measure up to the rest of the exhibit, officially called “Yinka Shonibare, MBE” (for Member of the British Empire), are the seven pieces specially crafted for the Brooklyn Museum.
Shonibare discreetly placed seven child-sized decapitated mannequins in playful positions in the museum’s period rooms, like its Dutch colonial farmhouse and a stately Gilded Age study.
But these creations have no raison d’etre. They’re frolicking poses are far removed from the engaging and cohesive message in the rest of the exhibit, which is a well-organized visual delight and mental fertilizer.