Yinka Shonibare CBE: Suspended States


Yinka Shonibare CBE: Suspended States at Serpentine South Gallery is the first solo show in London for over 20 years for Yinka Shonibare, a British-born artist of Nigerian heritage. The inclusion of his CBE, Commander of the British Empire, in the title matter;  he includes this accolade in the show’s title – and the reasoning fits well because the history of the now-dispelled British Empire is one of Shonibare’s concerns. He is noted for his focus on cultural identity, colonialism and post-colonialism, and in this exhibition he spreads his interpretation lightly to open debates for others to question.

Yinka Shonibare: Suspended States (detail)
Serpentine South Gallery. Photo: © Jo Underhill. Courtesy Yinka Shonibare CBE and Serpentine.

This is a show filled with colour. Its vibrancy creates a positive message of welcome. Split into five rooms, Shonibare explores history through paintings, installations, and sculpture. It features two new large-scale installations: War Library and Sanctuary City too.  The exhibition opener is a spectacular freestanding over-life-size work, Wind Sculpture in Bronze IV. Surprisingly, the physical heaviness of bronze vanishes under the lightness of the painted floating ‘fabric’ in Shonibare’s signature Dutch wax printed cotton.

Cited in the exhibition catalogue, the pattern denotes “the Indonesian-inspired ‘African print’ exported to West Africa by Dutch manufacturers”. And here on the wall is a fabulous quilt entitled Mauritius Fody and Comoro Blue Vanga. African masks float above the birds, signifying the ancestors who cared for birds’ habitats. It is part of a series titled ‘African Bird Magic’, highlighting endangered species. On inclusion of the mask Shonibare commented that “they become symbols of African empowerment to challenge the consequences of Western colonial industrialisation in the degradation of the African environment.”

In the main gallery visitors can improve their knowledge of war history, through the titles of 5,270 books in The War Library. To accompany the library installation, desktop computers – there to explore – give detailed information on wars fought, won and lost, through time. This is an enormous piece of research – Shonibare employed 10 people to catalogue the information.

The War Library, 2024 [detail]. Courtesy Yinka Shonibare CBE and Goodman Gallery, Cape Town, Johannesburg, London and New York; James Cohan Gallery, New York; and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and New York. Photo: © Stephen White & Co.

The books are shelved in a light-filled space – unusual for a library – to catalogue ancient to modern warfare. The multi-coloured book covers are bound in Shonibare’s signature Dutch wax print cotton fabric. The spines of 2,700 are imprinted with titles in gold, indicating conflicts and peace treaties, which have links to  imperial ambitions. The artist’s intention is to raise questions about human memory and amnesia. Fittingly, some books remain untitled to indicate conflicts yet to take place.

In an adjoining room , darkened for maximum effect, is Sanctuary City. Within it are seventeen scaled-down building replicas of both historic and contemporary sites of human refuge and shelter, from the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens to the Bibby Stockholm barge moored in Portland, Dorset. Others are across the world, from Bangladesh to the United Nations HQ in New York. It is riveting to see mini-scale models of the buildings, all dimly lit.

One has to peer in to the see the interiors, decorated in Dutch wax print cotton. In the free catalogue – available at the exhibition and to download online – Shonibare explains the human need for shelter and safety, from a women’s refuge in Chiswick to the Cathedral of Saint Elijah in Aleppo, Syria, just two of the remarkable ‘buildings’.  It is an immensely moving, emotive body of work.

Yinka Shonibare CBE: Suspended States. Installation view, Serpentine South. Photo: © Jo Underhill. Courtesy Yinka Shonibare CBE and Serpentine.

Next door are seven scaled-down replicas statues of historic figures, handpainted in Shonibare’s signature Dutch wax-print fabric and gold leaf. The series, from 2022, is titled ‘Decolonised Structures’ and features Queen Victoria, the unelected ruler of Britain and its Empire for 63 years, looking resplendent in multi-coloured fabric. A diminutive woman, the connotation of her being brought down to size is perhaps lost on the viewer.

Others are of Sir Winston Churchill – looking colourfully dapper – who oversaw the end of the British Empire, Herbert Kitchener and Sir Robert Clive ‘of India’. Each are fabulously ‘dressed’, almost in mockery, questioning the role and presence of these monuments.

The are many thought-provoking displays here – including Shonibare’s guests projects space – and more to see. Throughout, the message runs through that there needs to be more humanity, to protect the world’s environment and its people.

Yinka Shonibare CBE: Suspended States is on at the Serpentine Gallery (South), Hyde Park, London, until 1 September 2024. Open Tuesday-Sunday 10am-6pm. Free entry. For more information, please visit www.serpentinegalleries.org.