Headless Actors On A Global Playground

Scramble for Africa

hide captionYinka Shonibare's Scramble for Africa features 14 life-size fiberglass mannequins dressed in Dutch wax printed cotton.

Yinka Shonibare/By permission, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution
Yinka Shonibare i i

hide captionYinka Shonibare says he uses images from history as a metaphor for today's most vexing issues.

Charlotte Player
Yinka Shonibare

Yinka Shonibare says he uses images from history as a metaphor for today's most vexing issues.

Charlotte Player

At an exhibition now on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, a man in tight red pants and patent leather shoes leans over a bubbling fountain to take a drink. His clothes are Victorian in detail, but made of brightly colored African cloth. The figure is a creation of Yinka Shonibare, a British-born artist who spent his childhood in Nigeria.

Beyond simple cultural confusion, Shonibare's water drinker must also be frustrated — he's bending for a drink of water, but he has no head. Nor do any of specially made mannequins, which Shonibare has draped in brightly colored, patterned cloth.

"The absence of a head makes it difficult to read racial identity into his artworks," says Karen Milbourne, curator at the museum.

In another Shonibare tableau, two headless children dance atop a globe. A group of men — headless, naturally — gesture forcefully around a large table imprinted with a map of Africa. The piece is called "Scramble for Africa."

The Swing i i

hide captionJean-Honore Fragonard's The Swing provided inspiration for one of Shonibare's headless sculptures.

Copyright by kind permission of the Trustees of the Wallace Collection, London
The Swing

Jean-Honore Fragonard's The Swing provided inspiration for one of Shonibare's headless sculptures.

Copyright by kind permission of the Trustees of the Wallace Collection, London

Shonibare's art contains references from across the globe and combines details that span centuries. Among the artist's varied explorations of contemporary issus: water shortages, climate change, class, race and exploitation. He is exploring global issues. .

Shonibare's use of materials can seem complex, but there's even more to them than meets the eye.

"What could be more global [than] a batik from Indonesia that is reproduced in Manchester, England, and in Amsterdam, and finds its way into West Africa as a cloth of identity?" asks Johnnetta Betsch Cole, director of the Museum of African Art.

Shonibare The Swing i i

hide captionShonibare's spoof of Fragonard's The Swing

Yinka Shonibare/By permission, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution
Shonibare The Swing

"The Swing (After Fragonard)" by Yinka Shonibare 2001, Tate, Purchased 2001 Yinka Shonibare MBE On view at the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Instituation, Nov. 10, 2009 — March 7, 2010

Yinka Shonibare/By permission, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

Shonibare's art doesn't just push political buttons. Some of his headless mannequins enjoy various sexual acts. One of the key works in the exhibition spoofs the famous painting The Swing, by Jean-Honore Fragonard. In Fragonard's work, painted in 1766, a lovely young woman on a swing lifts her leg, granting her lover, lying below on the grass, a peek up her skirt. Shonibare's off-with-her-head version wraps the girl in a vibrant African print, stamped with Chanel's double-C logo.

"His work is always about leisure," says Milbourne. "Who was it that paid the price of your leisure? And then, of course, the headlessness kind of shows how ultimately you may have to pay a price, as well."

Though the skewered subjects of Shonibare's art may be unaware of any global impact of their dalliances and indulgences, the artist himself is anything but.

"He can move from enlightenment philosophy to 19th century politics and mores, to the history of art history, ballet, opera, environmental concerns, multinational corporations and the oil industry," says Milbourne. "All of this is addressed in his work, and yet you could go through the show and not care because it's just so gorgeous."

When he was 19 and studying art in London, Shonibare got a virus that affected his spine. His left side is paralyzed, so he now must use the aid of an electric wheelchair. That stops him not a whit from the pursuit of his art, though it has, perhaps, made him philosophical.

Ask the maker of this ornate, mischievous work which of his pieces he would save if a fire broke out, and Shonibare laughs.

"I'm somebody who believes very much in the value of change," Shonibare says. "A fire wouldn't bother me. It's just an opportunity to do something new."

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