I was fortunate enough to attend the member preview of the Brooklyn Museum's Yinka Shonibare retrospective back at the end of June. I was not sure what I thought then, and I left with questions and fortunate feelings that I was able to escape with only five or so mentionings of the ever so mythic and malleable word "identity." After seeing the show for a second time this past weekend, I think I am more settled on my thoughts. maybe. It may be pretentious. Sorry. Maybe.
I think the New York Times review is cogent in mentioning the fashioning of the mannequins with “African” textiles overdone in his œuvre. It is obvious or, as the Times says, literal, in pieces like “Gallantry and Criminal Conversation” where the mannequins are bent over in small groups in sexual positions. Additionally, if there is an idea beyond the overwrought trope of “questioning identity and authenticity,” it was certainly not present in the catalog and write-ups. In fact, they only served to reiterate a conversation of “luxurious white 18th century vs. postcolonial black 21st century.” Most frustrating were the implications of Shonibare himself in the exhibition’s concluding documentary, where in speaking on the Fragonard re-appropriation, he (rather problematically) refers to the piece as a contrast between the luxury of the west/poverty of Africa. How deeply he feels this to be true can’t be for certain, but statements such as that are unfortunately the kinds of golden nuggets that the curators of the show seemed to latch onto.
I think there are strong undercurrents that were missed. Shonibare’s work presents interactions before inequalities. Rather than “African authenticity” (whatever that really means anyway), I think the fabrics dressed on headless mannequins are symbols for the past and the implications for history's future generations. Of course interactions must include ones that are racial and economic, but there is an unmentioned labor-intensive application that needs to be performed in this installation work.
The Fragonard piece is that application, I thought, for the viewer is forced to reconsider, among other things, the idea of voyeurism inherent in the original. The priest and husband figures are absent from the composition, with perhaps the viewer of Shonibare’s installation left to take their place. The piece is three dimensional, here, and a spectator is offered the unique opportunity to move from all angles. There is irony in some way, for we, like the male participants, are given a peeping gaze up the headless mannequin’s skirt. The entire original absorption of the piece is altered, and if anything, the interaction around “leisure” is assigned onto the person who is gazing upon it. It is in this way that we are able to place ourselves in history, understand ways to see the past, construct the otherwise class-less, race-less, headless.
The curators and writers of the exhibition catalog needed to press further into what lies behind the appearance of these brightly colored fabrics. Hierarchies may or may not be revealed through the fabric, and yes, cultural barriers may be stretched, but art criticism on Shonibare in general needs to ask for more, because in this show we were force fed a bit of the same sentiments over and over.
The piece (“Mother and Father Worked Hard So I Can Play”) installed in the museum’s period rooms was sure nifty, though.