The chapter that I am presently writing on this subject will be published later this year by Intellect Books in an edited volume about post colonial uses of textiles. Here are some of the musings that constituted my initial proposal.
I recall watching Yinka Shonibare collect his honorary PhD from Sir Terrence Conran at my Royal College of Art convocation ceremony. Sitting on the back row of the choir stalls and seeing him receive his umpteenth award as I was to receive one of my first, I felt an almost fatalistic sense of arrival; certainly a culmination of sorts. Exhibitions and installations of Shonibare’s work had punctuated my career up to that point, for reasons no more glamorous or fated than my having been working in London and concerned with post-colonial critique. Shonibare’s work had literally been weaving itself into that city’s intrinsic fabric as I had developed and discovered my academic specialism through working in museums and galleries. This chapter will be as much about five years of artistic and critical commentary on five hundred years of London as it will be about the work of the artist. It will focus on the increasing significance and subtly fluctuating meaning of the striking Dutch wax textile used by Shonibare, and displayed in his home city in the years between 2005 and 2010.
The piece will be divided into four sections. The introductory section will be in part a straightforward description of the origins of Dutch wax batik textile; its production processes, its place on the markets of London’s East End and its significance within Shonibare’s work. The section will also be a historiography, both of the growing discourse surrounding the work of the artist and of the writing that exists on Dutch Wax and Batik textiles more generally.
The second section, Shonibare and London 2005: Bringing the empire home sets the scene of an academic and cultural London that was experiencing one of its sporadic waves of high profile engagement with themes inspired by black criticism and postcolonial critique. This particular wave occurred in the wake of the V&A’s major exhibition Black British Style (curated by Carol Tulloch in 2004). A number of retrospective exhibitions at other galleries followed this, all aiming to redress the collective memory of blackness and empire. The section will examine The Whitechapel Gallery’s Back to Black: Art, Cinema and the Racial Imaginary and The Michael McMillan exhibition, The West Indian Front Room which caused a stir at the Geffrye Museum that year. McMillan in particular will be compared with Shonibare as his installation also dealt directly with colonialism, imperialism and Britishness. Through this comparison the unavoidable simultaneous comparison will be made between McMillan’s starting point in anthropology through the work of Daniel Miller, and Shonibare’s starting point in pure post-colonial critique. This basis allowed the latter to re-insert cultural diversity into and deconstruct established stories of empire and ‘home’, rather than perpetuating them as many have criticised McMillan for doing. The strength and uniqueness of the Dutch wax will be a primary vehicle for exploration here, especially when examined in relation to the overtly plush but generically ‘western’ textiles used in the Front Room installation.
Michael McMillan: The West Indian Front Room, Geffrye Museum 2005.
Section three, Shonibare and Bhabha 2007: Cultural hybridity and the retelling of Britishness deals with what was an important year for London’s culture and heritage institutions. In this bicentenary year, Shonibare was thrown to the forefront of the galleries’ campaign to counteract the government’s established take on the abolition of the Slave Trade; one which, through films like Micheal Apted’s Amazing Grace attributed the bulk of the glory to William Wilberforce and told a white, male and upper class history. His work as a series of intrusions will be dealt with here, and the section will focus on the National Gallery’s trail of Shonibare pieces that was appropriately entitled Scratch the Surface. Shonibare’s work was not the only insertion of this type in 2007, but the Batik cloth made it the most striking, and perhaps the most visited of the trails. The National Portrait Gallery’s Road to Abolition and the V&A’s Uncomfortable Truths trails will be compared to Scratch the Surface, and the role of ‘the trail’ in establishing an inclusive version of an existing history as opposed to an exhibition, which may have been tokenistic given the circumstances, is examined. Homi Bhabha’s theories surrounding cultural hybridity will be brought to bear on the work within Scratch the Surface as a way of dissecting firstly what its intrinsic aims were, and secondly what it signified to London in 2007.
‘Sir Foster Cunliffe Playing’, Yinka Shonibare, MBE, Part of Uncomfortable Truths, Victoria and Albert Museum, 2007.
Shonibare and Gilroy – Structure, Flow and the Black Atlantic is the title of the chapter’s final section. It jumps to 2010, a year when the Tate establishment revisited and celebrated the work of Paul Gilroy through the major exhibition Afro Modern: Journeys through the Black Atlantic at Tate Liverpool, which was mirrored in London by the Chris Ofili retrospective at Tate Britain. In the same year Yinka Shonibare achieved his most prominent statement yet; Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, which remained on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth in until January 2012. In a poetic return to the beginning of the chapter’s time period, the final section will explore the words of Carol Tulloch and others at the Afro Modern symposium in Liverpool. It will return to the work of Paul Gilroy, which will have been mentioned in the first section’s analysis of Back to Black and it will consider whether the Dutch Wax statements of previous chapters have proven Gilroy’s notion of double consciousness to be too simplistic for contemporary times. It will pose the possibility of a ‘multiple consciousness’ instead, and in so doing will conclude with a series of questions that Shonibare’s work, in conjunction with Bhabha, raises.