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More than a Critique of Empire? On Yinka Shonibare’s CAKE MAN

Updated: Dec 3, 2022

This is an edited version of an article that was first published in Palatinate in November 2017.

Yinka Shonibare is one of my favourite artists. His work showed me the ability of art to deal deftly with history and politics in a visually engaging way. Rarely do you come across an artist with so many layers to their practice. Born in London, Shonibare moved to Lagos at the age of three where he experienced the legacy of British colonialism, not least being taught in English rather than in Nigerian Yoruba. Shonibare claims to “explore issues of race and class…[questioning] the meaning of cultural and national definitions.” With a background of two different cultures myself, Shonibare’s work has particular pertinence, especially in racial assumptions and questioning national identity from a multicultural perspective.

At first glance, Shonibare’s sculptures appear lively and playful with his use of colourful batik fabric and fondness for bright colours and patterns. His use of full-size mannequins holding gravity-defying postures are enticing and enjoyable to look at. On closer study, however, themes of race, class and colonialism are deeply rooted in these works and make them both conceptually rich and affecting. In CAKE MAN a mannequin, dressed in a tailored batik suit, balances a precarious tower of cakes on his back. Bent double from the towering weight of the desserts, an allusion is made to the exploitation of enslaved labour.

In an Artspace interview, Shonibare says his work came out of questioning his ethnic heritage: “One of my tutors said to me, “You’re African. Why aren’t you producing authentic African art?” And I thought, well, what does that actually mean? What’s authentic?”

It was an investigation that led the artist to the batik fabric characteristic of his acclaimed sculptures. Whereas these textiles are generally associated with Africa, Shonibare learnt that they were “actually Indonesian fabrics originally produced by the Dutch, [then] introduced to the West African market” by the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century. Although the fabric is not originally African it has been assimilated into a clichéd African cultural identity; Shonibare urges the viewer to ask: At what point does it become authentically African, and what does authenticity even mean when it comes to this cross-cultural, globalised history?

Like much of Shonibare’s art, CAKE MAN is not confined to examinations of Nigerian culture but also reflects on current political issues. In this case, the artist embeds a further layer of meaning to the sculpture by highlighting the materialistic greed that fuelled and followed the global financial crisis of 2008. “It’s my tribute to bankers,” Shonibare states, with talk around “bonuses to bankers and the top 1% literally taking all the cake.” The figure’s head, imprinted with a forecast of the global stock market, points to the modern obsession with capital and economic fluctuations that hides inequality and exploitation of labour. A link is drawn between our modern global economy and its deep roots in the imperial trade of people and goods.

As a critic of imperial exploitation, Shonibare’s acceptance of an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in 2005 and decision to permanently affix it to the end of his professional name was somewhat unexpected. Other black artists, such as the poet Benjamin Zephaniah, unequivocally reject such honours citing anti-imperialist beliefs. Shonibare has declared it to be a quasi-ironic act and evidence of being ‘the rebel within’ – “I am here to protest, but I am going to do it like a gentleman.” It is a reminder that there is no single person who is able to encapsulate the multitude of African diasporic histories and its legacies. Nevertheless, he is to me an example of an artist confronting complex themes of authenticity, colonial legacies, inequality and global capitalism without derivative simplification. That he is able to do this whilst maintaining a light touch and with a distinct and appealing visual style makes his work only more impressive. Many layers indeed.

I was lucky to meet Shonibare at the preview of the RA Summer Exhibition in September 2021 which he curated :)

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