It’s hard to miss Yinka Shonibare on Old Burlington Street right now. Currently, his vast banner, RA Family Album, covers the back of the Royal Academy building as it refurbishes its Burlington gallery, and now the Stephen Friedman Gallery has opened this new exhibition ‘…and the wall fell away’.
For those unfamiliar with Stephen Friedman Gallery, it is comprised of two buildings, which are located opposite each other on Old Burlington Street. Shonibare’s screen prints are in one, his sculptures in the other. But both sets of works are comprised of bright, dynamic pieces that not only enchant but are a direct challenge to White society as dominant forces, architects even, of our global language, cultural heritage and contemporary society.
In Gallery One are the sculptural works that have been the main focus of the TV shows and reviews of this show. We instantly recognise these figures – icons of classical Western art. There’s David, the Venus de Milo, and the Discus Thrower. Only here their bleached white marble is transformed into a skin of glorious colour and patterns. Batik, that symbol of African identity, covering them entirely, and globes taking the place of heads.
The patterns are rich in colour. And an interesting next step for Shonibare – previously he had applied Batik to cloth. Here there is no fabric to be seen – the batik design is applied directly to the sculpture.
And that message, of not just challenging White dominance, but infusing it with a global identity, is also seen in my favourite piece from the show – Leonardo’s famous drawing of Vetruvian Man, the perfectly proportioned man, is subverted and, instead, drawn out on the floor of the Gallery with the replaced with that of a black woman.
This challenge to the old order continues in Gallery Two where, in a series of screen prints, Shonibare takes European religious figures, such as St. Peter, Francis of Assisi, and Joan of Arc, and covers them with African masks, and saturates their image with his batik patterns and vivid colours. It’s religious iconography with a global identity.
It’s terrific work but, though the art is exciting and beautiful, I can’t help feeling, in this post-Brexit Britain, its sentiment may be a little misplaced. I wish the walls Shonibare is referring to in the title of this collection really were coming down, I really do. I fear, though, they are starting to go back up.
Stephen Friedman Gallery, London W1, to November 5, 2016.
All installation photos by me.