The new exhibition of his work at the Brooklyn Museum of art is a major midcareer survey of work by the Nigerian-born British artist. According to the museum description: "Shonibare’s artwork explores contemporary African identity and its relationship to European colonialism through painting, sculpture, installation, and moving image. Working with visual symbols such as Dutch wax fabric (produced in Europe for a West African market) and headless mannequins dressed in brightly colored costumes, Shonibare evokes the complex web of interactions, economic and racial, that reveal inequalities between the dominant and colonized cultures of Europe, Asia, and Africa."
A key material in Shonibare's work since 1994 are the brightly coloured 'African' fabrics (Dutch wax-printed cotton) that he buys himself from Brixton market in London.
"But actually, the fabrics are not really authentically African the way people think," says Shonibare. "They prove to have a crossbred cultural background quite of their own. And it’s the fallacy of that signification that I like. It’s the way I view culture—it’s an artificial construct [Wikipedia]."
He has these fabrics made up into Victorian dresses, covering sculptures of alien figures or stretched onto canvases and thickly painted over.
Of course, the political and historical implications of his work resonate with the violence and racism of the past, of Western imperialism, and of the erasure of African culture in favor of European culture, art, and costume [which is still happening, many would argue].
The repetition of the missing head in many of his sculptures works to emphasize the erasure of identity and race, while the theatrical and decadent costumes create a polarity between the false and the real -- what is missing and what is being lied about? Does the costume represent the only identity that matters? Can the African identity simply be morphed and tailored into something else? The beautiful pattern and fabric decorate and cover a harsher reality.
For more information on Shonibare's show in Brooklyn, check out the museum site.