Yinka Shonibare at Serpentine: Threads of Power

Yinka Shonibare | Serpentine
Yinka Shonibare, Decolonised Structures / Roberts (2022). Photo courtesy of the artist, Goodman Gallery, James Cohan Gallery, and Stephen Friedman Gallery

Suspended States, Yinka Shonibare’s latest exhibition at Serpentine South, delves into the impact of power systems on refuge sites, debates surrounding public statues, the ecological consequences of colonialism, and the lasting effects of imperialism on conflict and peace efforts.

Yinka Shonibare uses the Dutch wax print, a defining element in his first solo exhibition in London in more than 20 years, to represent the nuanced relationship between Africa and Europe. This fabric, which was first mass-produced by the Dutch and inspired by Indonesian batik motifs, was exported to British possessions in West Africa, where it acquired the name “African print.”

Among the highlights are two major installations: “Sanctuary City” (2024), composed of miniature buildings symbolizing places of refuge, and “The War Library” (2024), consisting of 5,000 books bound in Dutch wax print representing various conflicts and peace treaties, challenging traditional narratives of significance in world history. By presenting conflicts without hierarchy, he encourages viewers to reconsider the impact of lesser-known wars alongside more celebrated events.

In contrast to the somber theme of war, Shonibare’s installation “Sanctuary City” offers a glimpse of hope through architectural models illuminated from within. From iconic landmarks like Notre Dame Cathedral to modern structures like the United Nations building, these models symbolize places of refuge for vulnerable individuals. However, Shonibare adds complexity by juxtaposing the welcoming exterior with the harsh reality, such as the Bibby Stockholm barge serving as a reminder of Britain’s treatment of asylum seekers.

In works like “Decolonised Structures” (2022-2023), Shonibare paints these patterns on smaller replicas of London’s prominent public sculptures, challenging the presence and significance of colonial figures like Queen Victoria and Herbert Kitchener. Other pieces explore the opulent lifestyles fueled by colonization and the vital role of African art in global culture. Shonibare also addresses themes of xenophobia and environmental impact resulting from colonization in his quilt series, including “African Bird Magic” (2024).

The British-Nigerian artist’s practice challenges contemporary cultural and national identities within the global context, using Western art history and literature. He gained recognition with nominations for the Turner Prize in 2004 and displayed his acclaimed work “Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle” on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, London, in 2008 and 2010. The Tetley commissioned Shonibare to create “Hibiscus Rising,” a major public tribute for David Oluwale that was presented in Leeds in November 2023.


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