Born in the United Kingdom to Nigerian parents, Yinka Shonibare MBE spent most of his youth living in Lagos, Nigeria. At the age of 17, he returned to London to study Fine Arts at Byam Shaw School of Art. In 1991, he received his MFA from Goldsmiths College, graduating as a member of the Young British Artist (YBA) movement. Shonibare currently lives and works in London’s East End.
The artist is most notably recognized for his use of Dutch wax cloth, which he sourced from London’s Brixton Market. The ‘Dutch wax’ method was invented in the Netherlands in the 19th century as a way to mass-manufacture traditional Indonesian batik fabric quickly and cheaply for export to their colonies in the Dutch East Indies. These lower quality fabrics were not well received by the East Indian market, prompting traders voyaging on the Cape Route to sell their wares in West Africa during their refuelling stops. This practice gave birth to the deep and long-lasting association of these cloths with Africa and ‘Africanness’, an association that continues today in post-colonial Africa, often as an expression of nationalism. Shonibare began to use this ‘African’ cloth after an encounter with one of his professors who encouraged the young artist to create ‘African Art’. Shonibare ‘began to think about stereotypes as well as wider issues of authenticity and its flip side—selecting his fabrics to illustrate the muddiness that underlies such preconceptions’ (Yinka Shonibare MBE, Rachel Kent, Munich, 2008, p.7&8). The great irony in Shonibare’s work is that although his use of Dutch batik cloth began after being encouraged to create ‘African art’, there is nothing inherently African about his work. Shonibare consistently uses ‘Western’ references, Crash Willy being a prime example of this, and yet by choosing to use Dutch batik cloth, his work is immediately associated with Africa. The artist’s use of Dutch batik cloth also ties into broader themes of ambiguity, fabrication and colonialism that run throughout his work.
Crash Willy, is exemplary of one of Shonibare’s Tableaux Vivants, which are three-dimensional reconstructions of scenes taken from Western art history or literature. Touching on themes of history, identity, wealth and power, the artist reproduces each scene using life-sized mannequins usually clothed in colonialist European garb. These costumes, although European in form, are heavily ‘Africanized’ by the use of a variety of Dutch wax fabrics in their construction. Shonibare’s mise-en-scènes almost always feature several of the artist’s signature mannequins engaged in dynamic scenarios often riddled with contradictions, ideas of contamination, colonialism, globalisation and even notions of fakery and villainy. The mannequins are often presented as headless figures in an attempt to prevent an immediate association with any particular race; in doing this the viewer instead focuses on the figures’ costumes and placement within the greater tableau.
Works such as Crash Willy demonstrate the artist’s attempt at using these beautifully designed and constructed scenes, laden with contrasting imagery, to highlight the undercurrents and subconscious tendencies at play in ‘the politics of representation’. (Yinka Shonibare Double Dutch, Laughing at Ourselves, John Picton, Rotterdam, 2004).
Like many of Shonibare’s works, Crash Willy is wonderfully theatrical and contains ‘a centralized narrative that appears to be suspended in time’ (Yinka Shonibare MBE, Setting the Stage, Anthony Downey, Munich, 2008, p.46). When speaking on theatricality within his work the artist says: ‘theatricality is certainly a device in my work. It is a way of setting the stage, it is also a fiction—a hyperreal, theatrical device that enables you to reimagine events from history’ (ibid., p.46) or in Crash Willy’s case, literature.
Crash Willy was constructed as part of a 2009 exhibition entitled ‘Willy Loman: The Rise and Fall’ at Stephen Friedman Gallery in London and is an adaption of the death of Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman protagonist, Willy Loman. The inspiration for that particular body of work was a photograph taken in 1898 called ‘The First Fatal Car Crash’, depicting a mass of people surrounding the aftermath of a fatal car crash; its driver’s remains are unseen but presumed to be somewhere within the inquisitive crowds.
In 2009, the artist sought to create a Tableau Vivant of this 1898 photograph through the iconic self-inflicted death of Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman. Anxious from his failing career as a travelling salesman and disheartened by the realisation that he might not achieve the great American Dream in which he so believes, Willy Loman enters into a world based on illusions where he has trouble discerning the present from the past. Representative of the American middle class’s struggle to remain useful in the workplace, Willy Loman battles with the lacuna between expectation and reality. Having contemplated suicide, Loman finally dies in a car crash at the end of the play.
Crash Willy depicts the driver of the car elegantly strewn backwards towards the rear, one leg hanging outside the confines of the damaged vehicle. By depicting Miller’s story in the form of a 21st century installation, Shonibare pulls Death of a Salesman into the present day and proudly ties his artistic practice to the themes of this great American novel, particularly the theme of identity. When Willy’s son Biff is unable to graduate from high school and go to university on a football scholarship, and his father tries to reassure him they are special, Biff famously retaliates:
‘Pop! I’m a dime a dozen, and so are you!’
His father retorts, ‘I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman, and you are Biff Loman!’ (Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller, London, 1949, Act 2, p.132)
By presenting Willy Loman’s lifeless body as a headless figure, Shonibare contradicts Willy’s assertion, stripping him of his identity, reaffirming his son’s hurtful words. Is Willy Loman the ‘phoney little fake’ (ibid., p.121) his son claims him to be? Are the recounted memories, upon which Willy has built his identity, in fact real? Shonibare’s Crash Willy calls all of this into question.
The work was conceived in 2009 in the aftermath of the 2008 stock market crash. It is no coincidence then that the piece is called 'Crash' Willy and that the number plate of the vehicle spells 'FTSE' (the UK stock market index), representing another manifestation of a broken dream, in this case a broken British, as opposed to American, dream.
In 2002 Shonibare was commissioned by Okwui Enwezor at Documenta II to create ‘Gallantry and Criminal Conversation’, launching the artist onto the international stage. A 2004 Turner Prize nominee, Yinka Shonibare MBE’s work has continued to garner international success. Today, the leading artist can boast over fifty solo exhibitions at renowned museums and galleries worldwide as well as countless ground-breaking group exhibitions at sites such as the Smithsonian National Museum for African Art, The Whitechapel Gallery and The Royal Academy. In 2010, Crash Willy was the recipient of The Royal Academy of Arts Charles Wollaston Award for ‘Most Distinguished Work’ at the annual Summer Exhibition.
Shonibare has been a part of both the 49th Venice Biennale (2001) and the African Pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale (2007) and from 2010-2012 Shonibare‘s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle adorned Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth. In 2005, in honour of his service to the arts in the United Kingdom, the artist was awarded the decoration of Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). More recently Yinka Shonibare MBE was the recipient of the 2016 Smithsonian Institution African Arts Award. With numerous exhibitions, awards and accolades under his belt, Yinka Shonibare MBE is quickly cementing his position as one of the world’s leading contemporary artists.
Please call 1-800-555-5555 to order a print catalog for this sale.
Online Registration to Bid is Closed for this Sale. Would you like to watch the live sale?Watch Live Sale