Yinka Shonibare CBE RA by Sal Idriss

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    Yinka Shonibare CBE RA,    by Sal Idriss,    2006,    NPG x128612,    © Sal Idriss / National Portrait Gallery, London
Yinka Shonibare CBE RA, a leading contemporary artist whose work explores colonialism, empire and cultural identity.
Yinka Shonibare CBE RA
by Sal Idriss
chromogenic print, 2006
14 9/16 in. x 14 7/16 in. (370 mm x 367 mm) image size
NPG x128612
© Sal Idriss / National Portrait Gallery, London

Yinka Shonibare CBE The abbreviation for 'Commander of the Order of the British Empire' - an award given to some people in the UK for a special achievement. RA Practising artists who are elected as members of the Royal Academy are known as Royal Academicians (RA). was born in Britain, in 1962, but he grew up in Nigeria, West Africa, where his parents are from. He returned to Britain in his late teens and now lives in London. Shonibare’s work explores Colonialism The practice by which a powerful country controls another country or other countries. , empire and Cultural identity The way groups or individuals define themselves or others, in terms of ethnicity, nationality, language, religion, gender or other characteristics. , particularly through the history of the relationship between Europe and Africa.

Dutch wax print fabric has become his signature material. The history of this fabric reveals a complex relationship between colonialism, Cultural appropriation The adoption, usually without acknowledgment, of elements of cultural identity from subcultures or minority communities into mainstream culture by people with a relatively privileged status. and national identity. Although much of his work is sculptural, he works in a range of media including textiles, painting, sculpture, photography, film and installation.

Analysing the portrait

  • View larger image
    Yinka Shonibare CBE RA,    by Sal Idriss,    2006,    NPG x128612,    © Sal Idriss / National Portrait Gallery, London
Yinka Shonibare CBE RA, by Sal Idriss, 2006

Look carefully at the portrait. Take your time – look at it for at least a whole minute. What can you see?

    • The photograph shows Shonibare sitting on a chair and turning to smile at us, the viewer, in a friendly way. 
    • He seems at ease with the photographer and with having his photograph taken. 
    • Idriss has photographed Shonibare close-up. He is evenly lit, and his features are clear. 
    • This means that we immediately engage with his face and his smile. (It is almost as if we are chatting to him and sharing a joke.) 
    • The space he sits in is shallow with the background cut off by the brightly coloured, patterned fabric behind him. 
    • This suggests the fabric is a key part of the portrait. It is included because it is important to Shonibare and provides us with a clue about who he is and his art. 
    • Shonibare is wearing a traditionally European-style formal jacket. Its pin-stripe pattern has been popular in Britain since the late 1800s.  
    • This contrasts with the fabric backdrop. It is called Dutch – or African – wax printed fabric. It is popular in many African homes across the world. The fabric has a complex, multi-cultural history, which relates to his own Cultural identity The way groups or individuals define themselves or others, in terms of ethnicity, nationality, language, religion, gender or other characteristics. , as both British and West African.  
    • He is clearly displaying a medal pinned to his breast pocket. This is the MBE The abbreviation of 'Member of the Order of the British Empire', an award given in the UK for a special achievement. he was awarded in 2005 for the contribution he has made to British society and culture. In 2019 he was awarded a CBE The abbreviation for 'Commander of the Order of the British Empire' - an award given to some people in the UK for a special achievement. – an even higher-level award than the MBE.  
    • Shonibare uses Dutch wax printed fabric extensively in his art because of its association with West African societies and culture.  
    • He also uses it to explore the relationship between Colonialism The practice by which a powerful country controls another country or other countries. , Cultural appropriation The adoption, usually without acknowledgment, of elements of cultural identity from subcultures or minority communities into mainstream culture by people with a relatively privileged status. and national identity.
    • The fabric was a Dutch imitation of Batik A method of printing patterns on cloth using wax on the parts that will not have any colour; a piece of cloth printed in this way. , a hand-dying technique used in Indonesia, a Dutch Colony A country or an area that is governed by people from another, more powerful, country. , which then became popular in West and Central Africa. 
    • By using this fabric in his art, Shonibare highlights the cultural impact of European colonisation, which often suppressed existing skills and traditions and imposed new techniques and styles.
    • Shonibare proudly wears his MBE The abbreviation of 'Member of the Order of the British Empire', an award given in the UK for a special achievement. medal, which may seem at odds with the Colonial Connected with or belonging to a country that controls another country. themes he explores in his art (MBE stands for Member of the Order of the British Empire The countries ruled by Britain starting in the late 1400s and peaking around 1920 when the British Empire included around a quarter of the world's population. ). Shonibare is perhaps again reminding us that our histories and cultural identities are complex and tangled. 
I’m very interested in the colonial relationships between Africa and Europe, and the fabrics have become a metaphor for that. 
Yinka Shonibare CBE RA, 2018 

Who is Yinka Shonibare CBE RA?

  • Yinka Shonibare was born in London, England, to Nigerian parents.
  • At the age of three, he moved to Lagos, Nigeria, where he grew up. He spoke Yoruba at home and English at school. 
  • He returned to London to study Art, in his late teens.
  • He was inspired in London to explore the tangled relationship between Africa and Europe through his art. This has been a central theme of his work ever since.
  • In 1997, Shonibare’s work was included in the ground-breaking Sensation exhibition, at the Royal Academy, London. Shonibare, and many of the other young artists featured in the exhibition, went on to become internationally recognised.
  • In 2004, Shonibare was nominated for the prestigious Turner Prize.
  • In 2010, his first public art Commission A formal request made to an artist to create an artwork. Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle was displayed on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, London. This was the first time a Black British artist had been chosen for this commission.
  • In 2005, he was awarded an MBE The abbreviation of 'Member of the Order of the British Empire', an award given in the UK for a special achievement. for the contribution he has made to British society and culture. He was awarded a CBE The abbreviation for 'Commander of the Order of the British Empire' - an award given to some people in the UK for a special achievement. in 2019.  
  • Shonibare lives with a disability. He employs a team of assistants to help make his artworks under his guidance.
  • He has said ‘I do have a physical disability and I was determined that the scope of my creativity should not be restricted purely by my physicality. It would be like an architect choosing to build only what could be physically built by hand.’

Who is Sal Idriss?

  • Sal Idriss was born in Kumasi, Ghana in 1970. He moved to Britain in 1985.  
  • He has worked as a professional photographer in London since 1995.
  • He has photographed many significant and inspiring Black sitters in the public eye including artist and film-maker Horace Ové, politician David Lammy, actor Sophie Okonedo and writer Bernadine Evaristo. 
  • In 2008, he launched Famous for the wrong reasons, a photographic project reflecting the experiences of families affected by gun and knife crime. The project was inspired by the death of his brother.
  • He continues to photograph Black role models in mainstream culture as part of an ongoing project.

Questions

  1. What do you think this photograph is saying about Yinka Shonibare? Why?
  1. Why do you think Yinka Shonibare chose to wear his MBE medal in this photograph?
  1. What might you wear in a portrait to reflect your identity?