‘Things Are Not Always What They Seem’: Watch Artist Yinka Shonibare Transform Dutch Textiles Into Magnificent Sculptures

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

Production still from the
Production still from the "Art in the Twenty-First Century" Season 5 episode, "Transformation," 2009. © Art21, Inc. 2009.

Over the course of his career, the London-based artist Yinka Shonibare CBE has made films, paintings, installations, and drawings that serve as “a critique of Empire” by disrupting notions of identity and culture.

In an exclusive interview with Art21 as part of its flagship series, “Art in the Twenty-First Century,” Shonibare discusses his frequent use of batik Dutch wax print fabrics, which he drapes on headless mannequins (a nod to the use of the guillotine, and a purposeful omission of facial features that might indicate race).

Shonibare describes the history of the fabrics, which were originally produced in Indonesia, but marketed to West Africa, where they found an eager consumer base.

I like the fact that the fabrics are multilayered,” he says in the video, which was recorded in 2009, adding that though they were made in East Asia, the fabrics have since been “appropriated by Africa, and now represent African identities.”

Production still from the "Art in the Twenty-First Century" Season 5 episode, "Transformation," 2009. © Art21, Inc. 2009.

Production still from the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” Season 5 episode, “Transformation,” 2009. © Art21, Inc. 2009.

“Things are not always what they seem,” he adds at another point.

The artist, who grew up in an affluent family, and whose great-great-grandfather was a Nigerian chief, also incorporates aspects of his personal life into his work, drawing on themes of disability, vanity, and class. In his work, he often presents contradictory viewpoints, as in his film Odile and Odette, a riff on the ballet Swan Lake.

“What I’ve done is to blur the boundaries between the baddie [character] and the good one,” he tells Art21. “I’ve made them into one person.”

On September 18, 2020, the 10th season of Art in the Twenty-First Century will debut on PBS, featuring three new episodes about artists across the globe.

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s series Art in the Twenty-First Century, below.

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series like New York Close Up and Extended Play and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.


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