Yinka Shonibare’s art as an expression of hybrid identity

10 minutes to read
Article
Fleur Aarts
06/02/2019

Yinka Shonibare is a British-Nigerian artist who plays with his hybrid identity in the art he produces. His layered cultural identity is shaped by the globalized society in which he creates his works and comments on the intricacies of his backgrounds through works like 'The Swing'. 

Shonibare's cultural identity

In an age that revolves around constructing identity in very particular ways in the wake of nationalization, Yinka Shonibare is an artist that seems very particular with his work. The British-born artist, who grew up in Lagos, creates work that is heavily influenced by his own past, exploring ideas of cross-cultural heritages and the creation of a hybrid identity. You might say that the way Shonibare constructs his identity is hybrid in itself.

As he says in an interview with Culture Trip (Jagoe, 2017) when asked whether he identifies more with Nigerian or British Culture: “Growing up in Lagos there was a big awareness of British culture; I always visited London regularly, and it has never felt like an alien place. […] London is this big mix, and there are a lot of Nigerians in London; it has always felt like a home from home. I don’t think I’ve ever really had to categorize myself as one or the other.”

His art is celebrating and critiquing both British colonial history and African history.

Shonibare’s work consists of often ‘ironic drawings, paintings, sculptures, photographs, films, and installations’ (Kuiper, 2015), which mostly contain his signature element: Dutch wax-printed fabric. This brightly colored fabric originated in The Netherlands, inspired by Javanese fabrics. The Dutch and English saw the opportunity for mass production of these fabrics in Europe, by using new machinery to automate the dying process (Mazuri Designs, 2016).

Shonibare has been nominated for several prestigious prices and was awarded the decoration of Member of ‘Most Excellent Order of the British Empire’ or MBE, a title he has added to his professional name (Shonibare, 2018).

Shonibare’s art could be described as intercultural, incorporating different elements of different cultures into his work. You might say, as a British-African artist, he would choose to celebrate one of either side in his works. But this is what makes his art so interesting; it is celebrating and critiquing both British colonial history and African history. As he mentions in the interview with Culture Trip (Jagoe, 2017), when asked about this twofold interpretation of his work: “With my name as well – having this MBE – a lot of people wonder if this is an acceptance of it, or an ironic gesture; when I think it can be both, actually. In a lot of my work it’s important that there is this ambiguity, that it doesn’t answer these questions and that there are no definite statements being made”.

Identity in a global society

The word identity is hard to define and tricky to research. A paper by James D. Fearon (1999) gives some insight into the definition. He gives a twofold definition of the word, stating the following: “in ordinary speech and most academic writing, “identity” means either (a) a social category, defined by membership rules and allegedly characteristic attributes or expected behaviors, or (b) a socially distinguishing feature that a person takes a special pride in or views as unchangeable but socially consequential (or, of course, both (a) and (b) at once)” (p.36).

Including another dimension into the notion of ‘identity’, namely ‘cultural identity’, is important in unpacking identity in global society. A paper by John Tomlinson (2003) argues that cultural identity is the product of globalization and not its victim, as many people seem to think. Tomlinson outlines cultural identity as an element that has power in a globalized society. Especially national identity, he says, “is the product of deliberate cultural construction and maintenance via both the regulatory and socializing institutions of the state” (p.271).

Rather than the destruction of identity, globalization thus amplifies the significance of identity positions. In this sense, cultural identity is often tied to national identity. We can relate national identity to both above given definitions of identity by Fearon (1999) and even see it as a combination of them; national identity indeed subscribes to characteristic attributes or expected behaviors (e.g. ‘acting’ towards your national culture, such as eating cheese sandwiches in the Netherlands) and it is seen by many as a socially distinguishing feature that a person takes special pride in (which is when it becomes truly nationalistic).

Cultural identity, then, is not merely national identity. You can define your identity as subscribing to your own national culture, but this does not mean you are intrinsically nationalistic. Cultural identity is constructed in many ways. A paper by Qu Weiguo (2013) sheds light on this, describing two opposing notions in the construction of cultural identity, namely “a discursive cultural identity, once established, seen as an inerasable birthmark or a pure ‘final form’ incapable of, or resistant to, change” (p. 149) as one – which would be closely related to the idea that national identity is cultural identity, and the opposing notion that identity formation is “a dynamic and interactive ongoing process which engages other cultures and involves change in its responses to different challenges at different times” (p. 149). Cultural identity, then, indeed changes over time. When seen in the light of national identity, this becomes clear: times change, and with time does culture. However, when engaging other cultures, hybridity makes its way into identity.

[It] makes for an interesting construction of what identity means, and how it not only changes over time, but can also be reshaped into a completely new identity by letting different identity pointers flow into each other instead of seeing them as separate entities.

As per Jan Nederveen Pieterse (2009): “(…) hybridity denotes a wide register of multiple identity, crossover, cut’n’mix, experiences, and styles, matching a world of growing migration and diaspora lives, intensive intercultural communication, everyday multiculturalism, and erosion of boundaries” (p. 97). Essentially, hybridity, or in this case hybrid identity, is a mix of cultures in one. This is different from national identity, which seems to be a clear-cut formation of identity that does not change, but similar to cultural identity as an ongoing process of engaging other cultures, as posed by Weiguo (2013).

The notion of identity as an ever-changing process also comes back in a performance piece by Christina M. Ceisel (2009), tailored to what ethnic identity means: “Ethnicity is the product of actions undertaken by ethnic groups as they shape and reshape their self-definition and culture; however, ethnicity is also constructed by external social, economic, and political processes and actors as they shape and reshape ethnic categories and definitions” (p. 668).

Here, ethnicity or ethnic identity, is described in the same way that hybrid identity is above. This makes for an interesting construction of what identity means, and how it not only changes over time, but can also be reshaped into a completely new identity by letting different identity pointers flow into each other instead of seeing them as separate entities.

Hybrid cultural identity in motion: Yinka Shonibare and ‘The Swing’

In an episode of Brilliant Ideas (2015), Yinka Shonibare explains his choice for Dutch wax fabrics that he uses in his work, saying: “I always imagined the fabrics were authentically African, and then I was told that the fabrics were Indonesian fabrics produced by the Dutch. And I liked that history of the fabric, and I liked the global connections, the kind of trade routes of the fabric”. His choice of this material for most of his works already speaks volumes about the global connections he portrays in his art.

In his art, colonial scenes are displayed, which he marries to a multicultural use of material and always displays with some humor, even though the subject matter seems heavy. It is ironic, in the sense that – considering the history of the Dutch wax fabrics – he seems to combine two opposites in his works which makes it interesting and which, most of all, makes you think about colonial history in a new light.

Jean-Honore Fragonard's 'The Swing'

This is what Shonibare also does with ‘The Swing’. The artwork is modeled after a painting by French artist Jean-Honore Fragonard, with the same name. In the painting, we see a woman, clad in 17th century dress and hat, on a swing in the middle of nature with trees, flowers, and lavish statues surrounding her. In the bottom-left corner we see a man, laying in the flowers and (supposedly) looking up the woman’s skirt. In the bottom-right corner, we see the woman’s husband. Due to the swing’s motions, the woman loses one of her shoes: we can see this shoe flying.

This painting was commissioned by the French libertine Baron de St. Julien as a portrait of his mistress; she was supposed to be pushed by a bishop, but Fragonard took some artistic liberty by changing the bishop to the mistress’s husband (Artble, 2018). This painting, which is full of symbolism, was a product of the later stages of the Rococo era, “a time characterized by hedonistic freedom and all things aesthetically pleasing” (Artble, 2018), and the coming French revolution.

Yinka Shonibare's 'The Swing (After Fragonard)'

Shonibare’s take on the work is different in many ways, but most probably just as vibrant. Shonibare’s work is a statue, or an installation if you will, and is completely three dimensional and life-sized. Shonibare decided to leave out the mistress’s husband as well as her lover, the statues, and her head. This is a nod to the use of the guillotine in France during the Reign of Terror in the 1790s and during the French revolution.

Additionally, Shonibare used the Dutch wax fabrics which he is known for, for the woman’s dress and shoe. The mannequin used for the woman’s body is dark-skinned instead of light skinned. Is this a nod to lack of diversity within 17th and 18th century paintings, and thus a nod to colonialism?

As mentioned by Allison Young (2018): “Drawing our attention to questions of excess, class and morality that were raised by revolutionaries two centuries ago, Shonibare invites us to also consider the increasing disparity between economic classes today, especially alongside the growing culture of paranoia, terror and xenophobia in global politics since 9/11”. This mostly refers to the mannequin in the work being headless. She also discusses the Dutch wax fabrics being used, saying: “(…) their symbolism is steeped in histories of cultural appropriation, imperialism and power” (Young, 2018). This does not exactly ring true to what Shonibare says about his use of the fabrics, since he does not want to showcase one side or another side in which you can interpret his work.

[Shonibare] does not take a certain political standpoint in his work, which allows him to be playful with his works

Too many critics try to put his work in a box, when in fact it can be interpreted in many ways. As Shonibare says himself: “There seems to be a tendency to try and make people choose, to come down on one side of these binaries. My work addresses the idea of having this fusion or hybrid cultural identity and what that produces. People always want to categorize things: I’m much more interested in this idea of a hybrid” (Jagoe, 2017).

He also says that this allows him to use humor in his work. He does not take a certain political standpoint in his work, which allows him to be playful. Shonibare, therefore, definitely works from the perspective of hybridity and hybrid identity. Although he does seem to subscribe to both elements of European/British and African/Nigerian culture, he succeeds in mixing these identities within his work. It makes for interesting scenes that make you think about what it means to have agency in identity, and how to showcase it well if you so choose.

Playfulness in cultural hybridity

Yinka Shonibare’s work represents what is very prevalent in today’s society, namely identity politics, but also contests this. Shonibare seems to advocate for hybridity and that it is okay to embrace it as it is. ‘The Swing’ is an important work that combines British colonial elements, while being playful and humorous. Leaving out both the husband and lover of the mistress in the painting opens up a discussion: what is meant by this? Perhaps, the audience is now the one looking up the woman’s skirt.

This again, is the playful element that is found in most of Shonibare’s work. His use of Dutch wax fabrics subscribes to that element of playfulness; they are bright, beautiful fabrics that make Shonibare’s artworks stand out immensely. And not only that: they attest to Shonibare’s hybrid identity and his interest in using a fabric that carries a history. This makes for an amazingly brilliant artwork, that carries its cultural and hybrid meaning well.

References

Artble. (2018). The Swing. Retrieved from Artble

Brilliant Ideas. (2015, Augustus 24). Portraying the Sordid Shadow of Colonial History: Yinka Shonibare | Brilliant Ideas Ep. 4. United Kingdom: Bloomberg and Hyundai. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0rAIMV0k4M&t=465s

Ceisel, C. M. (2009, September 23). Checking the Box: A Journey Through My Hybrid Identity. Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies, 661-668.

Fearon, J. D. (1999, November 3). What is identity (as we now use the word)?

Jagoe, R. (2017, January 13). Colonialism And Cultural Hybridity: An Interview With Yinka Shonibare, MBE. Retrieved from Culture Trip

Kuiper, K. (2015, February 10). Yinka Shonibare. Retrieved from Encyclopedia Britannica

Mazuri Designs. (2016, February 4). A History of African Wax Prints. Retrieved from Mazuri Designs

Nederveen Pieterse, J. (2009). Hybridity, so what? The anti-hybridity backlash and the riddels of recognition. In J. Nederveen Pieterse, Globalization and Culture (pp. 95-121). United States of America: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Shonibare, Y. (2018). Biography. Retrieved from Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA)

Tomlinson, J. (2003). Globalization and Cultural Identity. In D. Held, & A. McGrew, The global transformations reader (pp. 269-277). Polity.

Weiguo, Q. (2013). Dehistoricized cultural identity and cultural othering. Language and intercultural communication, 148-164.

Young, A. (2018). Yinka Shonibare, The Swing (After Fragonard). Retrieved from van Khan Academy.