Headless Actors On A Global Playground The mannequins in Yinka Shonibare's exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art might be missing a crucial body part, but they more than make up for it in subtext. Shonibare's sculptures take on climate change, class, race and exploitation, all without losing their playful edge.

Headless Actors On A Global Playground

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A museum here in Washington shows richly dressed men and women on parade. They're wearing clothes from the 1700s and the 1800s. They stroll or write or indulge in x-rated pastimes. NPR's Susan Stamberg reports on the headless figures at the National Museum of African Art.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Artist Yinka Shonibare puts tight, red pants and patent leather shoes on a life-sized mannequin and hovers his Victorian gentleman near some bubbling water.

Ms. KAREN MILBOURNE (Curator, African Art Museum): A man bending over a water fountain trying to get a drink, but, of course, he has no head and he has no brain.

STAMBERG: An exercise in frustration, surely, but also Shonibare's way of thinking about water shortages, climate change. His mannequins are wrapped in Victorian trappings, but the 47-year-old artist's work is all about today's problems: climate, class, race, exploitation.

Mr. YINKA SHONIBARE (Artist): I use images of history as a metaphor, or a way to express them.

STAMBERG: And the headless business? African Art Museum Curator Karen Milbourne.

Ms. MILBOURNE: The absence of a head makes it difficult to read racial identity into his artworks.

STAMBERG: Shonibare was born in England, and from ages 3 to 17 lived in Lagos, Nigeria. His father, a lawyer, sent him to a good, private Catholic school. He went back to London for art training and lives there now. He says he dreams in Yoruba and English. Johnnetta Betsch Cole, the director of the African Art Museum, says like Yinka, his art - he also makes paintings, photos, films - is very international.

Ms. JOHNNETTA BETSCH COLE (Director, African Art Museum): What could be more global? A batik from Indonesia that is then reproduced in Manchester, England, and in Amsterdam, and finds its way into West Africa as a cloth of identity.

STAMBERG: Global fabric, global thinking.

Ms. MILBOURNE: It's his intellect that I found just absolutely amazing�

STAMBERG: Again, curator Karen Milbourne.

Ms. MILBOURNE: �that he can move from Enlightenment philosophy to 19th century politics and morays to the history of art history, ballet, opera, environmental concerns, multinational corporations in the oil industry. All of this is addressed in his work, and yet you could go through the show and not care �cause it's just so darn gorgeous.

STAMBERG: And naughty. Couples, headless, natch - well, coupling. In that decadent 18th century way that seems so 21st century, he spoofs a famous painting by Fragonard of a lovely young woman on a swing.

Ms. RACHEL KENT (Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney): She's somebody's mistress.

STAMBERG: This is Rachel Kent of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. The Australians but this first big Yinka retrospective together.

Ms. KENT: Over to the far-left, you have her lover. He's lying in a sort of grassy embankment and she's swinging towards him, kicking her slipper up into the air, and, of course, giving him a view into her skirt.

STAMBERG: And right behind her, pushing the swing, a clergymen - Fragonard painting the amorality of pre-revolutionary France. Yinka's off-with-her-head riff on that painting gives the girl a vibrant African print dress stamped with the Chanel logo, that big double C.

Ms. MILBOURNE: He's asking what today's swingers are up to.

STAMBERG: And Karen Milbourne says: raising global political questions. Swinging is always fun, but there are costs.

Ms. MILBOURNE: How did you get to have leisure? 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.

STAMBERG: So she's not just headless. She's mindless.

Ms. MILBOURNE: Absolutely.

STAMBERG: Then there's �Leisure Lady With Ocelots,� an early work. Yinka Shonibare made it in 2001. He has made a prodigious amount of work in the last 14 years. Another leisure time activity, another brilliantly dressed Victorian out for a show-offy stroll with her pets.

Ms. MILBOURNE: On a leash, she actually has these three beautiful, black-and-white spotted, almost like small leopard cats on�

STAMBERG: With diamond collars.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MILBOURNE: Indeed, because, you know, they deserve nothing less.

STAMBERG: The lady herself is corseted with a bustle on her long dress. The African fabric here is green and maroon, patterned with clock and watch faces.

Ms. MILBOURNE: Because here is a lady who clearly has time on her hands.

STAMBERG: Bursting with sly humor and ideas, when he was 19, studying art in London, Yinka Shonibare got a virus that affected his spine. He arrived at his Smithsonian show in his electric wheelchair, his left side paralyzed, his head listing left, which stops him not a whit from the pursuit of his art, although perhaps it has made him philosophical.

This is a terrible question, but it occurs to me, if, God forbid, there were a fire here, which is the one you'd make them grab?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHONIBARE: Well, you know, I'm somebody who believes very much in the value of change and things evolving, so for me, you know, one door closes, it's an opportunity to open a new one. And a fire wouldn't bother me. It's just an opportunity to do something new.

STAMBERG: The exhibition �Yinka Shonibare, MBE� - in 2005 Queen Elizabeth made him member of the Order of the British Empire - stays at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art through early March.

In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

INSKEEP: If there was a fire in this building, I'd grab the tapes of Susan's broadcasts. You can see photos of those headless figures at npr.org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

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