Grand Rapids, Michigan
Born in London, raised in Nigeria, and self-described as a “postcolonial hybrid,” Yinka Shonibare creates art that wittily comments on the contradictions of the Enlightenment and Victorian eras while also speaking to contemporary political, environmental, and social issues. Ebullient and playful, Shonibare’s work has an immediate visual appeal that belies the weight of its historical references.
“Planets in My Head” (on view through October 23, 2022)—the inaugural show in the newly remodeled exhibition spaces at Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park—serves as a mid-career retrospective, featuring 30 years’ worth of Shonibare’s career-defining projects. Together, these works, which include woodcuts, photography, video, metalwork, and abundant globe-headed (or headless) sculptures invariably outfitted in bright, Dutch wax printed fabric, amply demonstrate the versatility of his artistic reach. Many are on view for the first time in the United States, and several speak directly to the American Midwest, fortifying the show with local significance.
Shonibare’s works are freighted with fierce contradictions, much like the 18th- and 19th-century European eras from which he derives his inspiration. Age of Enlightenment—Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet (2008) reminds us that the same culture that produced Diderot’s Encyclopédie also produced the guillotine. A headless representation of the elegantly dressed Marquise sits at a desk, writing, accompanied by a copy of Isaac Newton’s Principia, which she translated into French. Châtelet died from complications during childbirth, but here her truncated figure references the beheadings of the aristocracy during the French Revolution. Visual and thematic dichotomy also occurs in Girl Ballerina (2007), which visually quotes Degas, though Shonibare’s young ballerina sports a Dutch wax printed tutu emblazoned with letters of the alphabet, suggestive of childlike innocence. Behind her back, she clutches a menacingly large pistol.
Like Girl Ballerina, many of Shonibare’s works resonate strongly with contemporary American politics. In The American Library (2018), a companion to The British Library (2014), visitors encounter bookshelves holding hundreds of books, all bound in Dutch wax printed fabric. Their spines are inscribed with the names of illustrious first- and second-generation immigrants to the United States, whose careers traverse politics, literature, sports, music, and popular culture, and the names of famous African Americans who traveled northward during the Great Migration. The two bookcases shown here represent only a small slice of The American Library in its entirety, but the included names are varied and often surprising. This project is surely the only register in which W.E.B. Du Bois, Ted Cruz, Kamala Harris, and Hulk Hogan appear together.
Food Man (2021), which was created for “Planets in My Head,” seems to have become the exhibition’s unofficial mascot. In this whimsical work, a figure struggles to push a wheelbarrow filled with an improbably high, precariously stacked mound of produce that seems about to topple over. Inspired by the importance of agriculture in West Michigan, Food Man also speaks more broadly to the issue of industrialized food production and its questionable sustainability. For Shonibare, this question is personal—one of the initiatives that he launched as part of his newly created Guest Artist Space Foundation in Nigeria is a 54-acre farm intended to explore sustainable practices while serving as a rural artist residency.
While this retrospective manages to be intimate in scale, it’s also comprehensive in scope. There’s plenty of punchy, socially conscious art out there, but, as “Planets in My Head” makes clear, Shonibare has a uniquely deft ability to disguise barbed social criticism through humorous and clever visual vignettes. His works are visually satisfying, immensely beautiful, and delightfully fun.