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Artist Yinka Shonibare MBE tolerated a discussion at the Hirshhorn last night with Karen Milbourne, a curator at the National Museum of African Art, but the effort strained him. To be fair, it must be terribly frustrating to spend your career making art that defies the stereotype of “African Artist,” only to be asked all too frequently about the color of your sculptures’ skin. But the British-Nigerian artist who is the subject of a new mid-career retrospective at the National Museum of African Art answered audience questions with aplomb and no small amount of sass. Here’s what he had to say about art and cultural identity, tongue firmly planted in cheek.
On how he feels about the 50th anniversary of Nigerian freedom: “I guess I could ask you the same thing as an American. The British set you free.”
On why he made Black Gold I: “Let’s not gild the lily. It’s all about the money.”
On not being an “authentic” African artist: “As someone who grew up in Lagos watching ‘Sesame Street,’ ‘Soul Train,’ ‘Hawaii 5-0’… The notion that I have some special access to an authentic African expression is kind of ludicrous.”
On contradictions: “[People] tend have difficulties with all of the contradictions in my work because the way the world is constructed is that you are supposed to just have one way of looking at things. But my work refuses that, and it’s very difficult for some people to understand.”
On his altered portrayal of historical figures: “I wanted to re-present. Re-present is not the same as represent. When I re-present, I do to the figure what the figure does not hold within itself. I may take a photograph of a figure, and I may pose it like a photograph, but then I might choose to lie. Because as artists, we are liars. Fiction is my job.”
On why he makes what he makes: “I make the art that I want to see. If I want to see something, and I can’t see that anyone else is making it, I’ll make it, So for the most part, I’m making art for myself.”
On outer space: “I’m very interested in colonialism, which is why I was quite excited when I was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire. Space travel is another kind of colonialism. It’s the next frontier. I’m intrigued by science fiction and space travel.”
On producing his work: “As an artist, I don’t work. Other people do that [for me].”
On appearing in his own photographs: “It’s cheaper to employ myself.”
On seriousness: “I’m an artist, I’m not an art historian. I can be more frivolous and whimsical. Usually academics are not whimsical, but that’s just me stereotyping.”
On why his figures are headless: “It started off as a joke about the French Revolution. I thought that removing the face would also remove racial specificity…but headless men trying to drink makes me chuckle sometimes. Don’t laugh at your own jokes.” On whether he will ever decide to put heads on his figures: “Well, when there are real people in my photographs, I tend not to chop their heads off.”
On choosing an ambiguous, but still racial, skin tone for his figures: “Shoot me. It’s a color….What is irrelevant is the baggage that people bring into a viewing of my work. That baggage is an expression of historical problem.”
Yinka Shonibare MBE, The Age of Enlightenment—-Adam Smith, 2008