Trade Winds: Yinka Shonibare CBE

Trade Winds: Yinka Shonibare CBE

The exhibition Trade Winds: Yinka Shonibare CBE at Norval Foundation, brings together a series of artworks, including sculptures, photographs and a major installation, created between 2008 and 2018, which are connected through their use of Dutch Wax fabric.

The exhibition takes as its starting point an appreciation for the fabric’s materiality and the conceptual as well as historical meanings associated with it, and provides a context for Shonibare’s Wind Sculpture (SG) III (2018), which has recently been acquired by Norval Foundation, and will be permanently installed in the Sculpture Garden in advance of the opening. In addition to being visually compelling, the Dutch Wax fabric in his practice invokes a serious consideration of how visual cultures evolve and create meaning within a given framework.

While Dutch Wax fabric is considered an aspect of an ‘African’ visual identity, it emerged in the mid-nineteenth century when Dutch companies, such as Vlisco, created textiles on a mass scale, using techniques such as roller printing, based on Indonesian Batik textiles. Traditionally, these Indonesian textiles were a luxury item, using a labour intensive, hand-applied wax resist dyeing method.

With the development of mass produced alternatives in the Netherlands, Batik – in the form of Dutch Wax fabric – became increasingly accessible, and was exported to consumers in Europe and, to a greater degree, West Africa. During the 1960s, following the end of colonial occupation, a number of West African countries started producing Dutch Wax fabrics for an African market and tailored the patterns specifically for them. This narrative of Dutch Wax fabric speaks to the larger complexity of how cultural objects are formed, often drawing upon a variety of sources, and shaped by historical, social and economic processes that defy simplistic or monolithic understandings of culture, which Shonibare has characterised as cultural ‘mongrels’.

Trade Winds provides an opportunity to observe the artist’s use of Dutch Wax fabric within his practice. At the centre of this exhibition is Shonibare’s The African Library (2018), the most recent iteration of his library series venerating first or second generation immigrants who have shaped a country’s social, political or cultural life.

Comprised of approximately 4,900 books covered in Dutch Wax fabric, The African Library broadens the initial concept of the artwork by celebrating the contributions that immigrant and non-immigrant Africans have made to the continent’s independence movements, science, arts and technological innovation, by emblazoning their names in gold on the spines of key books. The African Library includes a reading area where biographical details of these notable Africans can be accessed along with archival footage of leaders of African independence movements.

Alongside The African Library, Shonibare’s five part photographic series ‘Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters’ (2008) is included in Trade Winds. Drawing upon the 18th century Spanish artist Francisco Goya’s satiric etching of the same name, which is part of Goya’s seminal Los Caprichos (1797-1799) suite of etchings, Shonibare’s works are similarly critical of humanity’s ability to be truly rational. Each of Shonibare’s five photographs relate to a specific continent, acting as personifications of these land masses, yet the ethnicity of the figure in each image confuses traditional expectations of who inhabits a given continent.

For example, ‘Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters’ (Asia) features a figure of African descent who is attired in Dutch Wax fabric. Shonibare reminds us that within the context of globalisation, peoples and cultures move across the world, influencing and shaping one another – unsettling simplistic understandings of identity, place and culture. The two figurative sculptures included in this exhibition, Boy Balancing Knowledge II (2016) and Butterfly Kid (Girl) IV (2017), while playful, nonetheless suggest significant subjects for the next generation: escape from an environmentally compromised planet, and the weight and precariousness of our systems of knowledge.

Trade Winds: Yinka Shonibare CBE is curated byPortia Malatjie and Owen Martin and will be on view at the Norval Foundation, Cape Town until August 26, 2019.

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