Yinka Shonibare at the Venice Biennale

Nigeria’s successes at the Biennale aside, there are serious questions viewers might ask about our choice to participate in such an endeavour at this juncture. Given how hard life is for the Nigerian everyday person today, viewers may wonder, are our efforts not better expended elsewhere? National pavilions require money, money that, some could argue, might be needed elsewhere. Others might point out that the Venice Biennale is an event that is inaccessible to all but the most privileged Nigerians i.e., those not bound by either limited capital or a restricted passport. Might the entire exercise not then be rightfully dismissed as a performance for the Western gaze? This particular point binds even this essay. For it, I am drawing entirely on digitized sources, and in fact, most reviews of the Nigerian pavilion will be written by non-Nigerians.  

As well, despite the above noted benefits that having a mostly diasporic pavilion affords us—namely that it expands our understanding of what is Nigerian, such a choice still platforms a specific set of sensibilities and concerns. One of the outcomes of such a choice is that Nigeria Imaginary speaks with a singular socioeconomic voice, one that is relatively privileged. Even this article is not outside such power relations. I am after all a Nigerian writer living in the diaspora attempting to make sense of Nigerian art. The selection of my voice for such a task could be critiqued as privileging Western and diasporic inflected perspectives.  

There are of course answers to some of these questions. Notably, this year’s Biennale appears not to be funded through Nigeria’s depleting coffers but by private sponsors. In particular, we have Qatar Museums, Arijiju in Kenya, and the Museum of West African Art (MOWAA) among those to thank for this year’s showing. MOWAA also intends as well to bring the entire show back to Nigeria for viewing at its forthcoming Rainforest Gallery in Edo State. Nigerians might not get first crack at the viewing, but they will get an opportunity to see the work in person.  

The question of socioeconomic privileged voices is a tougher one to resolve. Almost all of Nigeria’s cultural luminaries eventually interface with the rest of the world and spend part of their lives elsewhere once given the opportunity to. An uncomfortable fact or not, Nigeria’s current, local cultural infrastructure is rarely sufficient for sustaining the sort of growth and opportunities its most ambitious creators desire. Expecting the visual arts to be remarkably different in this regard would be an unfair expectation. Which doesn’t defang the critique, only helps situate it.  

As Eric Otieno Sumba argues in Frieze, Nigeria like the rest of Africa is in the world. Notions of an Africa/Nigeria ‘to the world’ suggest a colonial distance between Africa and the rest of the world. One that posits a continent plaintively making the case for its contributions to the rest of the world’s countries. Nigerian artists must be able to make a living, and many of them choose to do so by participating in the global market. Venues like the Venice Biennale for all the high-minded talk of ‘envisioning futures’, ‘critiquing institutions’ and ‘subverting structures’, are also an unparalleled stamp of approval with major monetary implications. An unnuanced refusal to participate would be seen by many as throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  

There is much to be said about refusal, especially now in this moment where the global stage is dominated by a concerted abrogation of our responsibilities to one another. Some of us might demand such a shibboleth as proof of moral integrity. The question remains, is it possible to participate in the Biennale while at the same time refusing the structural power relations that underpin it? If we were to attempt such a thing, then we might be hard pressed to find a better ambassador than Yinka Shonibare CBE RA. Shonibare positions his work as anti-colonial and anti-imperialist, yet he uses the post-nominals ‘CBE’ referring to the royal honours first bestowed in 2004, and 2019. He has described his relation to being a Commander of the British Empire as that of a Trojan horse that seeks to resist from within the institution. Rather than reject the honour as an imperialist legacy, Shonibare takes up a different tack and raises a different set of questions. What does resistance look like from within the belly of the beast? How do we respond to resistance that looks unorthodox and challenges our notions of how to engage structural power relations? 

If you want a high priest of African art bristling with holy anger at global anti-Blackness, you might struggle to find that in Shonibare’s practice. ‘I had nothing to be angry about,’ he told the New York Times, mid-2009, of his coming of age in 1980s London while living comfortably in his parents’ home. In that profile, the New York Times chose to frame him in contrast with the ‘Afro-Caribbean BLK Art Group, whose fierce work protested the perceived racism of the British art world,’ during that same period, noting that Shonibare ‘felt no kinship with them’. A sentiment that he underscored in 2016 with an argument that people only become defensive when faced with an angry artist shouting at them. ‘That never actually works.’  

Shonibare’s style is often praised by Western critics for its prioritized motifs of whimsy, play, elegance, and beauty, often against contemporaries who are framed as being more interested in making shocking or pointed critiques. A 2009 New York Times interview takes care to note his claim, ‘I don’t produce propaganda art,’ adding, ‘I’m more interested in the poetic than the didactic.’ Later in that article, his interviewer observes him telling his studio manager in preparation for a tragic piece, ‘I don’t want to be too obvious. No blood or anything.’  

Reading this article, in isolation, presents an image of Shonibare as squeamish or superficial. The trick of course, is to reject such a binary. As Okwui Enwezor, the late Nigerian curator, pointed out in relation to his vision for the 2015 Biennale, ‘There’s always a misunderstanding, as if the socio-political cannot have aesthetic authority, cannot be experiential and powerful, engaging and enduring.’ The question then isn’t whether Shonibare’s work is either beautiful or political. But rather how beauty and politics can intertwine to offer a critique that is unexpected.   

A critical 1997 essay on Shonibare’s practice by Enwezor helps us see how Shonibare’s work occupies both notions simultaneously. The essay aptly titled ‘The Joke Is On You’, points to how Shonibare presents a carefully engaged critique, reflection and elegance threaded with humour. In a 2021 conversation with Shonibare, designer Yinka Ilori underscores the disarming impact of such an approach: ‘I think [Shonibare] lures us in so we become engaged, so you want to know more and leave feeling a different way to how you walked in.’ In other words, Shonibare’s earlier comments on the futility of caustic anger within art should not be understood as a simultaneous repudiation of the need for critique or protest. If anything, it hints at an approach that is subtle, a barbed needle poking at an audience’s conscience from beneath yards of elegantly draped batik fabric.  

Often the problem with shibboleths is that they assume there are only two camps, two options, one or the other. Sometimes this is useful. Other times it gets in the way.  

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