Can political art be beautiful? Can beauty itself be a form of resistance? These are some of the questions posed by the British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare in a new exhibition he has curated at Stephen Friedman Gallery in London.
The exhibition, “Talisman in the Age of Difference,” which runs through July 21, features works by artists mostly of African origin, ranging from rising talent to established players. Those with work in the show include the 2017 Turner Prize winner, Lubaina Himid; Kehinde Wiley, who recently painted Barack Obama for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington; the Egyptian artist Ghada Amer; and Marlene Dumas from South Africa.
Mr. Shonibare is known for sculptures and installations that engage with the history of colonialism and globalization. He is a member of the Royal Academy of Arts, the British institution whose past members have included Joshua Reynolds and J. M. W. Turner, and, in his work, he has restaged classic 18th-century paintings with headless mannequins wearing brightly colored, African prints. In 2012, he installed a giant ship in a bottle on the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square in London that also featured richly patterned, African-style textiles for the vessel’s sails.
Mr. Shonibare said that the exhibition was a reaction to “the resurgence of extreme right-wing politics and xenophobia across the globe” and in the spirit of African resistance.
Here are edited extracts from a conversation with the artist at his studio in North London in May.
You’re known as an artist, but this show puts you in the curator’s chair. How did it come about?
The start of this project was actually based on a show I did at the Royal Academy in 2017. That show coincided with the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States. And I felt very strongly that, despite the various achievements — the civil rights movement, Obama getting into power — that the battle had not actually been won. I was talking to the gallery and they said they really liked what I’d done at the R.A., and can I do something along similar lines? They know how I feel about the sheer racism that’s re-emerged.
I work in the United States quite a bit. And I’m shocked by what’s emerging. America, for me is a kind of global, diverse continent; the whole thing was made from migrants, so it’s very shocking to see. I love America, I really do. So I’m alarmed.
I also wanted to globalize the issue. I wanted to raise the fact that Western art owes a hell of a lot to African aesthetics. Where would Picasso be without the encounter with African art? Where would many Modernist European artists be? And, most important, I was also thinking about, when I was young in Nigeria, there was a festival of black arts, Festac ’ 77. It was in 1977.
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