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Yinka Shonibare and the William Morris Family Album

William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow

Exhibition review by Dr Christine Checinska


Yinka Shonibare MBE, ‘The William Morris Family Album’, 2015, Copyright the artist, Courtesy the artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London, Commissioned by William Morris Gallery

I am very interested in identity, in history and understanding why things are the way that they are today, and there is always a reason for that… For example how do you begin to understand multicultural Britain now, what brought that about, why all these people are here – what is the history of that? That is the history of colonialism. There is no getting away from the past, unfortunately, because the past is always present.[1]Yinka Shonibare has recently said about his work …

This notion of the past being ever present – cutting into, interrupting and informing the everyday – is explored further in the current William Morris Gallery (WMG) exhibition: the William Morris Family Album. This show is in fact the gallery’s first major commission. Shonibare characteristically examines the legacy of Empire and the global textile trade by restaging photographs from the Morris family album using local Walthamstow residents as his sitters. In this context Shonibare’s use of Dutch wax cotton takes on intriguing new meanings.

The Dutch wax print cloth that features in much of Shonibare’s work is a metaphor for the interrelationship between Britain and Africa and voices the complexity of black British identity. As with much of Shonibare’s work, there is something very seductive about these works. The heady use of colour and pattern and the sensual use of texture are almost hypnotic. The viewer is immediately drawn into Shonibare’s make believe world, but it is only then, on closer inspection of each, that his sophisticated use of semiotics and layers of suggested meaning gradually becomes more apparent. The mixture of and tension between an aesthetic quality that is pleasurable and seductive to the eye, and the layer upon layer of hidden meaning is arresting. Entering into his world, the viewer is forced to inhabit the space between repulsion and desire that is the colonial gaze; the work troubles the “colonised mind” and in so doing, Shonibare’s central themes and questions come artfully into play. I am deliberately inserting the term “artfully”, since, for me, there is always a level of wit and mischief making in Shonibare’s work. There is an aura of irony and satire, together with the obvious mastery of his art. At first reading these works seem playful and harmless, but then, when read more closely carries troubling messages and uneasy questions.

Shonibare’s use of metaphors of African textiles against metaphors of quintessential Englishness, i.e. the Victorian family album with its references to home, to the Victorian parlour with its associations of Empire, the Victorian era itself often viewed through nostalgic eyes as a time when Britain was truly “great”, gives rise to a characteristic level of complexity. The Victorian era was also the era of the anthropological ethnographic museum, e.g. Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum opened in 1883, adding a further layer of questions and possible meanings; Shonibare takes the idea of the “cabinet of curiosities”, stretching and subverting it, reversing it, almost as if to suggest that anthropology itself is about invention rather than discovery – he questions the “writing” of one culture by another. The recurring themes of the fusion of the diametrically opposed, questions of authenticity and perception, identity and difference/self and other, Empire and the resulting interconnecting histories are all alive in this new work. Yet read against what we know of William Morris’ socialist politics, new questions about equality today arise; class, culture and race collide. Equally when we consider the current gentrification of Walthamstow in London, it’s morphing into trendy ‘Awesomestow’, additional questions around these issues come to the fore. But what is also of interest to me is the way in which the politics of Morris and Shonibare at times overlap:

The past is not dead, it is living in us, and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make. William Morris

Similarly, Shonibare himself in an in-conversation at the WMG spoke of his respect for Morris’ politics. He also made reference to their mutual love of the decorative.

The use of so-called African textiles is the lynchpin of Shonibare’s sophisticated use of signs and symbols … but these textiles, these brightly coloured easy to spot cloths are not African at all and even if they were how could they possibly represent an entire continent? These vibrant prints are often referred to as Dutch wax cottons or Dutch wax-resist prints. As Jessica Hemmings writes:

The transnational identity of wax-resist textiles emerges from the numerous cultures that have in the past, and continue today, to identify with wax-resist…During Dutch colonization of [Indonesia] batik production was taken up in the Netherlands … but the market proved unsuccessful… Instead the textiles found a welcome reception in West Africa, becoming symbols of national pride associated with independence gained by a number of nations in the late 1950s and 1960s.[2]

Rooted in meticulous historical research, Shonibare’s ‘principled clash of colour and pattern’, rather than celebrating identities framed by cultural and racial difference, celebrates hybrid cultural identities that are continually in flux. He uses familiar signifiers of African-ness and Englishness, subverting them in order to deconstruct our understanding and acceptance of them. The Dutch wax print cloth is a metaphor for the interrelationship between Britain and Africa: the complexity of so-called black British identity. In this instance Shonibare’s choice of colour on the prints is reminiscent of the Pre-Raphaelite colour palette; a subtle reference to a certain notions of Englishness.

Shonibare’s William Morris Family Album, though difficult to summarize in a few words, highlights questions about authenticity and purity, whilst the rending of metaphorical borders between the self and the other/us and them/colonizer and colonized, through the use of “African” cloth, and a post-structuralist concern with the polysemic nature of non-verbal signs, through playing havoc and making mischief with seemingly recognisable visual codes.

Copyright Dr Christine Checinska 9/3/15

[1] Shonibare, Museums Journal, June 2013, p. 41.

[2] Hemmings, Cultural Threads (Bloomsbury Publications)