Monday, September 21, 2009

Yinka Shonibare MBE at the Brooklyn Museum

“Although I am prone to look for the sexual element in art, I read this work more as revisionist art history…”

It was well worth the two hour trip on public transit to catch the closing of Yinka Shonibare MBE’s exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum this week-end. I know I am supposed to view Shonibare’s work through a political lens and use terms like deessentialism and deterritorialization, but can’t I just decline? Can’t I just say that I am fascinated by his use of fabric in sculptural installations?

Born in London to Nigerian parents, the artist explores fabric as an ethnic signifier (therein lies my personal fascination, since I am fixated on baby dresses as feminine signifiers in my own work). His signature style includes headless mannequins dressed in Victorian garments made from wax fabric associated with African fashion, even though it is produced in the Netherlands. These mannequins are posed in settings that disrupt our notions of the Dandy lifestyle and of the relationship between race and class. To get back to formal concerns, I wanted to see the exhibition because my cocoon sculptures are also headless forms where subtle folds in fabric differentiate figures from one another. I suppose I am more interested in identity creation than in identity politics.

The exhibition includes video and photography, but I am going to focus on two installations in particular. Images can be viewed at

Gallantry and Criminal Conversation (2002) shows figures fornicating on and amidst baggage that represents the Grand Tour, which was a rite of passage for well-off men for more than cultural edification. The one work I couldn’t get past was of a ménage à trois in which the buckled shoes of the topmost man barely graze the floor, placing his dead weight on the woman’s bosom. The erotic nature of the installation is fascinating, because there is so little skin exposed. This thought brings me back to my last post on underwear and the role of clothing in sexual behaviour.

The Swing (After Fragonard) (2001) recreates Jean-Honoré Fragonnard’s Rococo painting, The Swing (1766) of a woman flirtatiously swinging in a pastoral setting with her shoe cast off. As would be expected, her Victorian dress is rendered in Dutch wax fabric, which has been interpreted as emphasizing the universality of sex. Although I am prone to look for the sexual element in art, I read this work more as revisionist art history, as a reminder of the heavy bias towards the West in the discipline. Anyway, to get back to the sexual aspect of the work, the installation is cordoned off, so the view is controlled. This sounds irrelevant unless you know some of the history of the work. It was a controversial commission by the man who appears in the foreground of the painting. He is positioned in such a way that he has a full view of the woman’s genitals, which would be unobstructed because of the minimal selection of undergarments in this time period. Neither the viewer nor the priest pushing the woman on the swing have access to this peep show. In Shonibare’s installation, the audience is likewise denied a view up the woman’s skirts. Nonetheless, as with Gallantry and Criminal Conversation, the arrangement of the clothing alone is sexually suggestive. Interestingly, Shonibare has excluded both male figures in the installation, which causes me to see it as an endorsement of self-satisfaction. Uh-oh, following the logic of Michael Schwartz, the chief of staff for Senator Tom Coburn, could art turn a viewer’s sexuality inward, making them homosexual?

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