With the weather turning slowly towards the gentle breezes and sunshine of spring in New York, a new sculpture by Yinka Shonibare has sprung up on the corner of 5th Ave and 57th, the southeastern corner of Central Park and long-running home to the Public Art Fund’s ongoing commission project. The piece is a particularly resonant one for the current juncture, mixing bright colors and a fluid, windswept form that carries deeper political subtexts and histories of capitalist exploitation of the African continent.
Opening this week in the wake of an Armory Show that was equally noted for its commitment to a strikingly political curatorial program, Shonibare’s sculpture mirrors the trends towards activism and cultural critique that has carried much of the recent discourse during the Trump era. It is territory to which Shonibare is no stranger. The British-Nigerian artist has long sites of cultural transition and transformation, with a particular eye for the exchanges and uses of power that undergirds these situations. Frequently this interest settles on trade and its central role in the exploitation of African during the colonial period and beyond. This subject matter sits at the core of his work here.
Of particular interest in this work is the wax batik print that defines the curvature and colorful patterns of the piece. This pattern, originally produced in West Africa, was coveted by Dutch traders working throughout the region during the 18th and 19th Century, and would find itself caught up in an international trading network as colonial expansion in the region ultimately turned many of Africa’s cultural elements into commodities, turning cultural objects into capitalist goods. Shonibare reflects on this phenomenon by emphasizing the cloth’s current state, predominantly produced in the Netherlands and exported back to its original home in West Africa. Subtle but incisive, the piece drives home the more subtly sinister effects of global capital, a gradual alienation of production that retains objects while robbing them both of their original space of significance in a culture, while maintaining its imagery as an empty signifier. Despite the cloth’s continued cultural distinctions, its site of production has been abstracted, pulled away from its origins. Presented here as a windswept, twisting and twirling piece of loose fabric, Shonibare makes this phenomenon explicitly visible.
The sculpture will be on view through October 14th.
— D. Creahan
Yinka Shonibare: Wind Sculpture [Exhibition Site]