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Yinka Shonibare’s Suspended States

Yinka Shonibare’s new exhibition delves into conflict, persecution and immigration

British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare has returned to the Serpentine with his first solo exhibition in London in 20 years.

Titled Suspended States, the show looks to explore the many repercussions of colonization, Europe’s imperial history and subsequent endeavours for peace. The compelling artworks delve into key themes such as the enduring legacies of colonialism, spaces of refuge and sanctuary.

Besides pictorial quilts and woodcuts and installations, Suspended States include two new large-scale artworks, Sanctuary City and War Library.

The Turner-prize nominee artist, who first exhibited at Serpentine South in 1992, is aware that the layered and political nature of his work has only become more prescient over time. “My work has always been about crossing the boundaries; geographically, visually, historically and conceptually. Suspended States addresses the suspension of boundaries, whether psychological, physical or geographical – all boundaries of nationhood are in a state of suspense,” says Shonibare.

“My work has always been about crossing the boundaries; geographically, visually, historically and conceptually.”

– Yinka Shonibare

Central to the exhibition is an installation called Sanctuary City, made up of miniature buildings that represent places of refuge for those in society who are persecuted; and also War Library, which consists of 5,000 books, including peace treaties, that have been bound in batik, a Dutch wax print fabric for which the artist is known. He discovered it at Brixton market in South London, when he was a student.

Fans of Shonibare will be reminded of his 2014 installation, The British Library, that featured 6,328 hardback books, each covered in the same colourful material. The 61-year-old, who was awarded a CBE in 2019, uses the wax print as a way to highlight the complex relationship between Africa and Europe.  The designs hail from Indonesia but were mass-produced by the Dutch and sold to British colonies in West Africa, where they were then referred to as ‘African print’.

Two works from Yinka Shonibare’s Decolonised Structures: Frere, 2022 and Roberts, 2022. Both fibreglass sculptures, hand-painted with Dutch wax pattern and wooden plinth.

In another of his major artworks Decolonised Structures, Shonibareuses his signature batik on small-scale replicas of London’s large public sculptures. “This is an exhibition in which Western iconography is reimagined and interrogated,” he explains, “at a moment in history when nationalism, projectionism and hostility towards foreigners is on the rise.”

Reconstructing colonial figures such as Robert Clive and Sir Charles James Napier, he lays bare the political realities that gave rise to them and demonstrates the effect of their presence in contemporary public spaces. He says of its inception: “You know the [Edward] Colston statue that came down in Bristol? Well, Decolonised Structures addresses that; it’s a series of statues that we see around London, including Queen Victoria and Sir Winston Churchill. Many of those figures were involved in British colonialism and we understand the trauma of that. But at the same time, what I’ve done is that I have kind of corrected them and made everything more beautiful.”

“This is an exhibition in which Western iconography is reimagined and interrogated…”

–  Yinka Shonibare

The timing of the work could not be more perfect. Shonibare says: “Like a lot of my work, this is linked to the zeitgeist. We’ve got culture wars going on, a refugee crisis, a homeless crisis and war in the Ukraine. But culture wars are based on people putting down artificial boundaries. The point of this show is to say that this happened and this is where we are now. We are all linked.”

The exhibition also shines a light on Shonibare’s Guest Project experimental space in Hackney, and the Guest Artist Space (G.A.S.) Foundation, which he launched in Nigeria five years ago. While his foundation is head-quartered in London, he returns to Nigeria every November for the Lagos Art Fair, known as Art X Lagos. 

Suspended States
12th April – 1st September 2024
Serpentine South Gallery
Kensington Gardens, London W2 3XA

More details HERE.

Words: Lisa Marks

Leading photo: Yinka Shonibare CBE, Decolonised Structures, 2022-23. Fibreglass sculptures, hand-painted with Dutch wax pattern, gold leaf and wooden plinths. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation. Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery, Cape Town, Johannesburg, London and New York, James Cohan Gallery, New York and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and New York. Photo by Stephen White & Co. © Yinka Shonibare CBE.

From Decolonised Structures: Frere and Roberts commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation. Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery, Cape Town, Johannesburg, London and New York, James Cohan Gallery, New York and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and New York. Photo by Stephen White & Co. © Yinka Shonibare CBE.

From Decolonised Structures: Queen Victoria, 2022. Fibreglass sculpture, hand-painted with Dutch wax pattern and wooden plinth, 139 x 75 x 57 cm. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation. Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery, Cape Town, Johannesburg, London and New York, James Cohan Gallery, New York and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and New York. Photo by Stephen White & Co. © Yinka Shonibare CBE

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