Yinka Shonibare’s Message in a Bottle
Entering Trafalgar Square in London, it was nearly impossible to miss the curious installation of an impressive ship in a bottle. Placed atop the Fourth Plinth in front of the National Gallery from May 24th 2010 to last week, was the whimsically oversized model Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle (2010) by British Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, MBE. Shonibare, celebrated for his potent, yet playful, post-colonial perspective and symbolic use of West African textiles, last exhibited at the Studio Museum in Harlem in a 2002 solo show. His recent site-specific sculpture across the pond was commissioned by the Mayor of London and Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group as part of a contemporary public art initiative. With the historical location in mind, Shonibare’s statuette turned monument features Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson’s empire ship the HMS Victory, which he sailed triumphantly at the Battle of Trafalgar until he met his end.
Having Trafalgar Square (one of the most revered political public spaces in London) as the setting for such a liberating and innovate installation is especially symbolic given the country’s past history of colonization and intermittent, if negligible, representation of non-Western culture and art. I found this reference to European expansion to remain celebratory above critical, however, through the artist’s framing of Britain’s past as the instigation of London’s current multiculturalism. Among the original crew on the HMS Victory, twenty-two nationalities were represented, emblematic of the diversity in Great Britain today. Thus rather than signifying African diasporic citizens as tied down by colonialism’s painful and oppressive history, Shonibare removes the restraints of victimization and recognizes a diverse national identity. Furthermore, London is reconstituted as a distinct site of the global diaspora, and it is upon this incongruously frozen yet mobile ship that viewers may sail through contemporary expressions of cultural movement. Trafalgar Square itself has been transformed into a public exhibition, activating both consciousness and whimsy in all of its viewers.
Yinka Shonibare, MBE, was born in England in 1962 but primarily grew up in Nigeria. Now living and working in London, Shonibare is esteemed for integrating his unique global heritage into an artistic voice that challenges assumptions and stereotypes concerning the constructions of race, class, gender, and sexuality. Often alluding to the Victorian era and the relationship between Western and non-Western sociopolitical exchange, he questions the origins of African diasporic culture by deconstructing oversimplified cultural representations. Shonibare incorporates subversive symbolism in amusing ways, integrating incongruous and unexpected ideas through playful juxtaposition rather than fixed symbolism. Instead of remaining static or overtly critical, his conceptual drive is achieved in a witty and stimulating manner that is more poetic than didactic, more whimsical than cynical.
The fanciful and even mischievous tone of Shonibare’s art expresses a creative critique that is liberated from a potentially limiting and self-victimizing reflection on postcolonial theory and global politics. For example, upon further examining his monumental Nelson’s Ship, one will discern the West African fabric composing the billowing sails. Shonibare is renowned for using brightly patterned “African” fabrics to unravel a complicated and transnational narrative. His textiles, although seemingly “authentic” to Africa, were actually originally inspired by Indonesian batik designs, manufactured in Dutch factories, and later sold to West Africa. These fabrics were eventually adopted to celebrate Pan-African identity through a romantic notion rooted in a fabricated past.
In opposition, Shonibare recognizes and celebrates the modern history of Africa through the textiles’ relevant symbolism of Western contact and global commercialism. The fabric, incorporated in many of his previous installations, thus directly challenges the limiting notion of authenticity. Rather than upholding a fallacious conception of “authentic” African art that is free of Western influence, the medium conveys how art can be appropriated, adopted, and still legitimately both African and global. Nelson’s Ship evokes a transnational perspective that is empowered rather than threatened, remaining integral to a more global British landscape. “For me,” Shonibare declares, “It's a celebration of London's immense ethnic wealth, giving expression to and honouring the many cultures and ethnicities that are still breathing precious wind into the sails of the United Kingdom." Thus the message in the bottle ultimately reveals a complex yet boundless perspective defining diverse representations of the contemporary global diaspora.
Many of Shonibare’s works are similarly witty critiques of Africa’s complicated relationship with colonial lifestyles and values. The fanciful and playful aspect of his art, however, expresses a sense of creativity in which new ideas and imagery manage to break rules and expectations alongside boundaries and hierarchies. We see this juxtaposition of the critical and the celebratory echoed in Nelson’s Ship, whose poetic perspective serves to treat as much as provoke its viewers. “A ship in a bottle is an object of wonder,” Shonibare attests. “Adults and children are intrigued by its mystery. How can such towering masts and billowing sails fit inside such a commonplace object?” With this piece, the artist monumentalizes a whimsical curiosity into a proud sociopolitical statement. While Shonibare’s works are sometimes critiqued for valuing aesthetic intrigue and conceptual insight at the expense of historical depth and retribution, they effectively present more obscure topics in an accessible and appealing framework. He thus exposes a more nuanced global dialogue and empowering diasporic representation to the greater public.
Yinka Shonibare’s enduring piece for the Fourth Plinth stands as a testament to British multiculturalism and its complicated yet constructive historical legacy. Furthermore, the significance of commissioning a black British artist to create a work for London’s most esteemed political public space is emblematic of the diverse social landscape of Britain’s past and present. Nelson’s Ship is thus a symbol of both the historical oppression and global mobility driving contemporary diasporic movement and expression.
It is upon Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle that all of London’s public – local citizens and global tourists alike – have traveled for the past two years from the city’s resident heart to its distant diasporic shores. Shonibare’s icon presents itself as a multilayered craft and symbolic bridge between the past and the swiftly evolving diasporic expressions of today. In keeping with the boundless tides of globalization, Shonibare’s sculpture has turned towards progressively public and momentous strategies to activate transnational subjects and mobilize a multitude of viewers. It will soon be replaced by the next Fourth Plinth victor, Powerless Structures, Fig 101, by the Scandinavian artistic team Ingar Dragset and Michael Elmgreen. Their bronze sculpture will feature a young boy on a rocking horse, fittingly displayed during the upcoming 2012 Olympics as a subversive take on historical representations of masculinity and class in public equestrian statuary.
In the meantime, the empty Fourth Plinth still bears the mirage of Yinka Shonibare’s ship, pointing forward to the distance as his multicolored sails gesture toward us, beckoning our immersion in their journey and story. They billow outward, implying ever-moving seas, both dangerous and promising. We may peer through the bottle and dream of the ship’s voyages, but most of all we will be inspired to discover its message. Despite its encapsulation by the taut cork of the bottle, Nelson’s newly conceived and globally adorned HMS Victory is now forever mobilized. Upon reflecting his work, Yinka Shonibare enticingly declares: “All the rules can be broken and new fantasies can be created. In art, anything is possible.” Indeed, anything applies to all peoples, all places, and the power to represent the movements and meanings in between.
Seeking to aid London’s current yearning for the grand sculpture, The National Maritime Museum, with the aid of The Art Fund, has launched a fundraising campaign to buy Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle and provide the beloved sculpture with a permanent home for all to see. If you would like to help bring Shonibare’s work to The National Maritime Museum, please visit www.artfund.org/ship.