‘You’ve Got to Be a Bit Utopian’: British Artist Yinka Shonibare CBE Explains What it Takes to Be an Artist

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Yinka Shonibare with his installation "The British Library." Photo by Tabatha Fireman/Getty Images.

The Nigerian-born, London-based Yinka Shonibare CBE began exploring politics in his art while in school at Goldsmiths, eventually turning his practice toward deconstructing stereotypes and questioning notions of authenticity. These explorations have taken him far—most recently to Chicago, where Shonibare is the first artist spotlighted for the Driehaus Museum‘s new contemporary art series. For an artist who has made reanimating the past his method, the museum’s elegant Gilded Age mansion setting makes for a particularly fitting environment.

What drives Shonibare? In an episode of Art21’s “Extended Play” series, the artist is interviewed in his London, offering a window into his thought process. “You’ve got to be a bit utopian,” he explains, “because it’s not a very realistic occupation.”

Over the course of his career, Shonibare has returned again and again to considering power structures, especially those of European colonialism, asking how his artwork can help re-imagine the world. Drawing on fashion, especially the batik prints of African cultures, Shonibare creates diorama installations, photographs, paintings, and sculptures that question the legacies of colonialism and empire.

“I don’t really make anything useful,” he says, “and that, in and of itself, is an illustration of my own disposition.”

Watch the full segment, which originally appeared as part of the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” television series on PBS, below. “A Tale of Today: Yinka Shonibare CBE” is on view at the Driehaus Museum in Chicago through September 29, 2019. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship Art in the Twenty-First Century television is available now on PBS. Watch full episodes and learn about the organization’s education programs at Art21.org.

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