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Yinka Shonibare, William Morris Album

Born in London but from Nigerian origins, Yinka Shonibare (R.A.) is associated with the Young British Artists. In 2011, he was commissionned Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle for the fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square. Widely exhibited worldwide, his artworks are as jokingly seducing as subversive. His carnivalesque mannequins and actors, whether they are dark-skinned dandies, headless black mannequins, or African actors in powdered wigs and 18th century costumes, lay bare power relations in imperial contexts. The excess of decoration on the costumes and in the settings as well as the gaudy colours refer to denial and concealment as their appeal masks the bleak realities of slavery, domestic services, and the drudgery of menial jobs. Costumes and masquerade have long been used in art and black minstrelsy comes to mind when we are faced to Shonibare’s parodistic tableaux. The artist places his practice in visual traditions adding a post-modern flavour to his output nonetheless. Shonibare’s satirical works ranging from photographs, sculptures, or installations have a deliberate post-modern appeal. The artist revisits masterpieces such as Leonardo’s Last Supper, Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progess, or Fragonard’s The Swing. His humourous recycling is at times inspired from literary figures, Dorian Gray among others. The systematic use of African batik fabric –textiles actually produced in Indonesia at a time when it was a Dutch colony—serves a post-colonial discourse and challenges stereotyped identity markers. The humorous discrepancies in his works rely on visually different patterns. In The British Library installation the books are covered with batik. In Party Time, headless protagonists in batik costumes contrast with the Victorian interior decoration of the room in which they are partying. The bright colors of the batik fabric make the colonial subaltern, metonomically present, garishly noticeable. The playfulness of the Victorian Dandy series is plain but the tableau is highly subversive as it hinges on racial reversals. The series has much to do with Hogarth’s moral satires. The great British artist himself featured black people in his satirical works and his anti-colonial stance has been highlighted by some art historians. We intend to further this comparison between Shonibare’s satirical works and Hogarth’s social and moral satires. Shonibare’s Revolution Drawings combine archival photographs of revolutionary events and pieces of batik fabric arranged in decorative pattern. The politicization of aesthetics or the aestheticization of politics, to borrow from Rancière, is at stake in this series. In many works, Shonibare taps into European history and its democratic projects to problematize race relationships. The locations for Shonibare’s interventions are essential to study as they partake of the political message in his work. The insider/ousider, colonized/colonizer, master/servant divides are complexified. Ironically made a Member of Order of the British Empire, Shonibare decided to tie the title to his name in an act of self-parody or, is it an act of self-hybridization? Things never are black or white in his interpretation of history.

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Vanessa Guignery
Professor of English and Postcolonial Literature at the ENS de Lyon and member of the Institut Universitaire de France in Paris.
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