THE ARTIST IS UTOPIC. Yinka Shonibare CBE RA is a celebrated British artist whose work explores cultural identity, colonialism and post-colonialism within the contemporary context of globalisation. His show Suspended States is at Serpentine from 12th April until September 1st 2024 and is his first London solo exhibition in over 20 years.

You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Yinka Shonibare, why is the show title Suspended States?  

When I thought about this title I was thinking about the state of the world at the moment and about the increase in nationalist ideas around the world. I was thinking about a moment in which we can suspend any ideas of nationalism, any ideas which actually divide people. I ask people to stop for a moment, to suspend that way of being for a while, to think about ambivalence and nuance, to not always be so sure that there are people we want to exclude and we want to include. Let’s look at humanity generally.  

Do you believe in abolishing all boundaries?  

Yes, because if you look at the map of the globe you cannot see any lines where each country is. Human beings have always been nomads and we migrate. For centuries we go where we can get a better quality of life. With the issues around climate change we all have to collaborate from every region. If you start to put up a wall the flood will not know if this is your country or not. It will go everywhere. If we don’t collaborate, how can we mitigate the effects of climate catastrophes. If we say, I’m just going to look after my own part of this, it will never work.

“Artists are always utopian in their thinking, but then somehow we always fail this utopia, because it’s never actually realised.”

Yinka Shonibare CBE

Yinka Shonibare CBE: Suspended States, 2024. Installation view, Serpentine South. © Yinka Shonibare CBE 2024. Photo: © Jo Underhill. Courtesy Yinka Shonibare CBE and Serpentine.

Yinka Shonibare, is your life, your art and thinking concentrated on the relationship between Africa and Europe, and colonialism and anti-colonialism?  

Yes. Our history forms who we become, and it’s very difficult now to find an African who is not affected by Europe. The history of the transatlantic slave trade and of the African diaspora in the world is coming from the colonial encounter with Europe. I’m bilingual – I speak another language called Yoruba – but the only reason I’m bilingual is because of the colonial encounter in Africa. That subject is very much part of the way that I express myself, because my identity is related back to this history. I can’t separate history from who I am.  

You accepted the honorific award of CBE?  

Being appointed Commander of the British Empire, mostly this award is given because of your achievements in your career. But there’s been debates, especially amongst many black people, that this award should not be accepted, because of the history of the British Empire in Africa and also the history of slavery. I deliberately accepted this award because I want us to have a conversation about this relationship and also to think about the marginalisation of ethnic minorities. Why should ethnic minorities not be at the table? Why should we be always on the margin? Why can’t we come to the centre and change things from there? This acceptance raises questions, because if I didn’t accept then this topic is closed.  

In Suspended States, why is there a whole room of bronze statues of people like Queen Victoria, Sir Winston Churchill and Sir Robert Clive, each covered with Dutch wax patterns?  

Many heroic figures became heroes because of their exploits in the countries that Britain colonised. When a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston was pulled down, there was a very big debate about what we do about statues of people who did really quite terrible things. My approach is to say we can’t erase history. History happened. I don’t believe these statues should be knocked down, I believe that I can make them better. If I add in the patterns they are more beautiful: Queen Victoria looks very nice. Churchill looks fantastic, like a dandy wearing very nice patterns. There’s the potential of hope for human beings. We can improve on the things that we have.  

Is dandyism something you like? 

The dandy doesn’t hurt anybody. For example, take Oscar Wilde. Of Irish origin he was a gay man, but he used his style to reach the top levels of British society. His dandyism was also the best form of protest, because it’s a form of masquerade where you can become anything you want and you are in control of that. This is why I like the symbolism of a dandy and have sympathies with the idea of the dandy.  

Why do you use the Dutch wax patterns that we associate with West Africa but originate in the Netherlands?  

When I was at university I was making a political work about perestroika, which was happening in Russia. My professor looked at my work and said, “You are from Africa. Why don’t you make authentic African art? Why are you making something about Russia?” So I went to the Brixton market in South London and went into a fabric shop to find my authentic African materials. When I asked them to tell me about the material they said, “It’s Indonesian inspired fabric produced by the Dutch and then sold in West Africa.”  

Was your Wind Sculpture in Bronze IV inspired by the sails of Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle that you placed in Trafalgar Square in 2010 and is now on permanent display outside the Maritime Museum in Greenwich?  

I was invited to Trafalgar Square to put something on the fourth plinth, it’s a public sculpture project. There’s a statue of Nelson in Trafalgar Square, and because Nelson fought and won the Battle of Trafalgar against Napoleon, Britain had more access to trade and the sea. Winning this battle was very helpful to the process of colonisation and travel and the importance of the wind moving the sails, and the importance of the wind in relation to migration and slavery as well. Sculpture is usually quite big and solid, and as wind is a metaphor for me for migration I was asking myself if can I make a work of art that’s really about nothing. Literally about wind. You can see the shape, but you can’t see it. And it is something which is very heavy but feels very light. It’s a visual illusion because it’s not really light. That’s how the idea came for the Wind Sculpture which tries to describe the movement of the wind.

I was asking myself if can I make a work of art that’s really about nothing. Literally about wind.”

What is the meaning of African Bird Magic, the stitched quilts of endangered birds combined with African masks in another section of the show?  

I combined endangered birds with ritual masks because these masks represent the pre-industrial African time, and a lot of ancestral practices and rituals were in harmony with nature and about the relationship with nature. Before industrialisation and the colonisation of Africa many people tried to live with nature. It was about respecting the ecosystem and always trying to get a balance. I also use those masks because I was looking at the collections of modernist Western artists like Picasso, who collected a lot of African objects. The West has learned from Africa in the creation of Western modernism, so Africa does have something to offer.  

How do you decide that an idea will become a work of art?  

A lot of my work is about my relationship to the zeitgeist. This is a relationship of the artist to current events, to political thinking, to philosophical thinking, about form, about art. It’s a combination of me wanting to push the boundaries of my art but also at the same time wanting to engage with current issues. All of the work developed from what I’m thinking about or what I’m worried about. I take a lot of notes when I have ideas, and also with my work as well. A project I just finished will usually create the next project, because I look at that project and I think, okay, maybe I need to take one part and expand that, or maybe actually I need to do the research in another way. It’s almost like one project is giving birth. It’s the parent of another project with new ideas.  

Did you organise the circuit of the Serpentine exhibition? 

Yes, I decided what kind of feeling I wanted when you go around. You start with this Wind sculpture. It’s almost dancing, very exciting and many colours.  But then, when you go through the exhibition, you go from the light side of the sculpture, but then you enter The War Library which is a very dark subject. When you first see it you think it’s all very nice colours, but when you look closer you realise this is really not a very happy subject.  

Like with The War Library, this huge wall of 5270 books bound in Dutch wax print cotton with all the titles written in gold?  

Yes, this is not the first library sculpture I’ve made, because I’ve done The American Library, The British Library, The African Library, and then The War Library. The library series is about exploring the archive and memory and history, and also looking at the positive and the negative side of human events. The War Library is about amnesia. The way that we make wars, then we make peace treaties, but then almost next year we go back to another war. We human beings seem to struggle with memory, and we don’t consider the impacts of trauma of war. Another generation comes and they do exactly the same thing. I’m just as baffled as the next person as to why we want to try to do this again.  

Do we forget that we humans are animals?  

Yes, but animals are better, because they don’t have nuclear weapons or artificial intelligence. This is so surprising to me that I had no choice but to make something about memory and about not forgetting. It’s also about hope, because whenever we do the peace treaties we are somehow utopian, like artists. Artists are always utopian in their thinking, but then somehow we always fail this utopia, because it’s never actually realised.  

Is this the destiny of humanity? 

This is what I’m trying to talk about. The backdrop is so many conflicts at the moment, in so many places. We hear about Ukraine, also about Sudan but it’s not so big in the news, but there’s so many hotspots where these things are going on and it doesn’t matter which part of the world you go, human character is always the same.  

Is this exemplified by your work Creatures of the Mappa Mundi? 

That work is from the oldest medieval map in the Hereford Cathedral. When I was studying the map I realised that if human beings don’t know something, we’re just afraid. In this medieval map there were some creatures, and the way they imagined a creature in India, for example, was the mandrake, humanlike creatures that bury their heads in the soil and if you try to pull them up scream and scream, and this sound is deafening. This fear is so universal that if we don’t know what people look like we create mythologies around them. The fear of the Mexican, for example, in the United States. But this is not only in the United States. This is here. This is everywhere. This has gone on for centuries, where we create mythologies around things we don’t know.

Yinka Shonibare CBE

Yinka Shonibare CBE: Suspended States, 2024. Installation view, Serpentine South. © Yinka Shonibare CBE 2024. Photo: © Jo Underhill. Courtesy Yinka Shonibare CBE and Serpentine.

Yinka Shonibare CBE

Yinka Shonibare CBE: Suspended States, 2024. Installation view, Serpentine South. © Yinka Shonibare CBE 2024. Photo: © Jo Underhill. Courtesy Yinka Shonibare CBE and Serpentine.

Yinka Shonibare CBE

Yinka Shonibare CBE: Suspended States, 2024. Installation view, Serpentine South. © Yinka Shonibare CBE 2024. Photo: © Jo Underhill. Courtesy Yinka Shonibare CBE and Serpentine.

Yinka Shonibare CBE

Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle by Yinka Shonibare CBE. Studio maquette. © Yinka Shonibare CBE 2024. Photo: © David Hornsby.

Yinka Shonibare CBE

Yinka Shonibare CBE: Suspended States, 2024. Installation view, Serpentine South. © Yinka Shonibare CBE 2024. Photo: © Jo Underhill. Courtesy Yinka Shonibare CBE and Serpentine.

Yinka Shonibare CBE

Yinka Shonibare CBE: Suspended States, 2024. Installation view, Serpentine South. © Yinka Shonibare CBE 2024. Photo: © Jo Underhill. Courtesy Yinka Shonibare CBE and Serpentine.

I don’t want to make literal abstractions, but I can get to the sublime through reality.

What is Sanctuary City, your scaled down replicas of historic and contemporary buildings from across the globe that have been used as places of refuge? 

Conflicts and war create refugees. It’s natural that this is going to happen. At the same time, we have a very unwelcoming right-wing response to these refugees. We don’t stop to think about maybe if we have a natural disaster here we need to go somewhere. This human generosity to look after each other and to welcome and support people is diminishing. We don’t have the means to prevent conflicts, and when they happen we don’t want to support the people who became refugees because of this problem. Historically, there’s a precedent for supporting criminals or people in danger, who get refuge in a safe place. Like Notre Dame, for example, in Paris. But we don’t want to create safe places for people. If you look around London now, there are many more homeless people on the streets than before. Everywhere I go, any country, you see many people. I’m trying to understand this issue and to look at the history. During the Rwandan genocide there was a hotel in which people took refuge. What happened to us? Why did we lose this compassion? It’s a very basic human idea, and if you lose this I don’t think you are any longer a human being.  

Are you worried about the many changes in the modern world? 

Human beings evolve and there’s nothing wrong with changing how we do things. I’m not a negative person. Even in Sanctuary City, you can see there are lights inside each building. Even though the building is black I don’t believe everything is completely dark. Maybe it’s because I’m an artist, I have a utopian view of the world. That’s why I made the statues better. I made them more beautiful because there’s always hope. I know that the world is not always easy, but I have to hold on to something, because if I don’t then I don’t think my life would have any point. Through my work I have to show that the world is dark, but it’s also light. Human beings have the capacity for creativity. That’s something quite unique to people and it’s about how we use that capacity to change many things. I’m not a pessimist.  

Why do you use several different modes of artistic expression at the Serpentine in Suspended States? 

As an artist you have to engage the human senses in different ways – the philosophy, the aesthetics, the materialism, the tactile nature of it. I’m hoping to speak to different people in many different ways, so that when you come to the work it’s not only one way of seeing something or one way of experiencing the work of art. You can experience something as a sculpture, or you can experience it as a quilt or a print, or you can experience it another way. I’m hoping to be accessible on different levels as well, because some people are very cerebral and like to consider things they look at and think very carefully about it. And some people want a sensory engagement where they’re more interested in the aesthetic and the colour, even though actually even my colour and the way that I make something is political, because even when you’re looking at something that’s just about colour or beauty I’m still asking questions. It’s not about always explaining to people. It’s about what you feel when you look at it. Then if you want to know more that’s also interesting, but if you don’t want to it’s also it’s okay. I can’t dictate the emotion of my viewer, and not everybody’s going to like everything you make, that’s for sure, but visual impact is important for me, that you can see it and if you don’t have time, maybe you have one second, that’s alright. Maybe you have 24 hours. That’s also okay.  

I believe that an artist must have an obsession. What is your major obsession? 

My major obsession is to readdress history. We’ve had many injustices in the past, colonialism being one of them. Discrimination is another one. How do we start to make a world which is better for everybody? How can we actually change the world? To make the lives of minorities, for example, much better. The only way we can do this is to look at the mistakes of history and to try to make a better situation for people.  

This is utopic thinking?  

Yes. I know that as an artist, I can bring these topics in front of people in a way people can enjoy. It’s like performance. You can make a play which has a lot of complexities about history and about identity, and it can be a really good play which is fun to watch but also will make people think. I don’t want to make literal abstractions, but I can get to the sublime through reality. 

Even if everything is dark is there always a little spot of light somewhere?  

Yes, because if I don’t think that it’s impossible to carry on making as an artist.

Thank you very much.

Portrait of Yinka Shonibare CBE RA. Photography by Tom Jamieson. Image © Yinka Shonibare CBE and Tom Jamieson.

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