Y inka Shonibare is a British-Nigerian artist who focuses on colonialism, its legacy, and its impact on cultural identity. His art frequently features printed Dutch wax fabrics — commonly used in traditional African clothing — repurposed to comment on identity and Empire. Shonibare was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2004, and in 2010, became the fourth artist to display a work on Trafalgar Square's vacant Fourth Plinth: Nelson's Ship in a Bottle. His work can currently be seen on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, the Royal Ballet and the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Ahead of his talk at Chatsworth House for Art Out Loud, we sat down with him to discuss challenging the establishment, and providing a space for young artists to flourish.
YINKA SHONIBARE MBE © ROYAL ACADEMY OF ARTS, LONDON. PHOTOGRAPHED BY MARCUS LEITH
Sotheby's: Your practice is extremely varied and includes sculpture, installation, painting and photography. What are you currently working on?
Yinka Shonibare MBE: I'm doing a large installation for a triennial in Cleveland calledThe American Library. And in New York's Central Park next year, I've got a large public sculpture going on display as part of the Public Art Fund. It will be a Wind Sculpture, several metres high, in a different shape from the one that was in the Royal Academy courtyard during this year's Summer Exhibition.
S: You've said in the past that being a black artist was twice as difficult. Do you find this is still true?
YS: You can apply that to women as well. Society was different then — a patriarchal white male world. Those people are old now; maybe some of them are dead. So we've got space for both women and black artists to do whatever they want to do without people getting in their way. The current Soul of a Nation exhibition at Tate Modern features black American art from 1963 to 1983 — and those guys had struggles. They're struggles that we don't necessarily have to put up with now, but it's vital that these are acknowledged. There will be people who, rightly, will argue that that change is only focused on very few people. It's the same names. There are probably no more than 15 really big black visual artists around the world, so it's still a small section of the art establishment.
S: Your installation Nelson's Ship in A Bottle was shown on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. Was this a career milestone?
YS: Yes. That work was a game changer for my career — even more than being nominated for the Turner Prize. That was the work that the general public saw, because you don't have to go into a museum or a gallery: you can just see it on the street. The ship in a bottle is playing with the idea of ethnicity and nationality, and what that might consist of. The work remains popular. It's a recognisable, traditional object, but subverted. It's currently outside the Maritime Museum in Greenwich and people photograph it all the time. I didn't realise it was going to be as popular.
S: How do you feel about the increased interest in African art today?
YS: The recent enthusiasm for contemporary African art is something that should've happened a long time ago. It's a good thing, and as long as it's not just a fad or some kind of fashion, the artists need to be supported. In the rooms I curated for the RA Summer Exhibition, I placed focus on African artists, including artists such as El Anatsui, Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga and Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga. It's important that these artists are now included as part of the international art world. The word 'International' used to mean just Western.
As part of my studio I have a project space for young artists called Guest Projects. At the moment there's an alternative art school in residence called School of the Damned which is a post graduate programme run by its students. Most master's degrees are quite expensive to pay for, so young artists are beginning arrange their own education. The residency ends with a group show: they can experiment, and don't have the commercial gallery pressures placed on them. We take applications from artists and organisations in the form of a proposal, and then they have access to facilities, advice and space.
Yinka Shonibare MBE will appear in conversation with Alistair Sooke at Art Out Loud at 2.30pm on the South Lawn. You can book tickets here. The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition is on display until 20 August 2017.
Art Out Loud runs from 22—24 September 2017 at Chatsworth House, and is proudly sponsored by Sotheby's.