Student with learning difficulties – please read fast to get better comprehension of text.
Take a look at the three images below of the Three Graces, a popular subject of European art; the original subjects stemming from ancient Greek and Roman mythology. What about these images do you notice?
As you can see the two paintings and the sculpture span three centuries in their creation. The three women are caucasian, with light skin and hair and no bodily hair – a typical example of European dominant art. These works are classed as ‘High art’ associated with the upper class, even aristocracy and wealth. They are preserved today in museums as examples of artistic finery and craftsmanship, along with other ‘traditional’ paintings based upon the European concept of art and of what art should represent. Now take a look at the piece below. This work is also entitled The Three Graces and was made by Yinka Shonibare, a British born Nigerian artist.
Three headless models – their identity removed, dressed in Victorian upper class style dresses cut from African material. The piece explores identity, authenticity, class, globalisation colonialism and post colonialism. The convergence of cultural styles by way of the material and the cut of the frocks makes for what is a very striking comment. Shonibare has decided to challenge the dominance of what was primarily a European subject matter, previously painted and sculpted in what was considered the traditional manner. Colonialism was at its peak in the Victorian period, with the British at the forefront of claiming countries and their assets to feed its Empire. Much of Shonibare’s work focuses on this period, his piece Scramble for Africa 2003, is based on the Berlin Conference in 1884 – 5, where Africa was split up amongst Europe and the regulation of trade routes and colonization was agreed upon.
“I was thinking: Okay, so where do I stand? I live in England. I’m from Nigeria. Nigeria was colonised by the British. The Victorian era was the height of colonialism in Africa. How do I relate to the repressive Victorian regime? So Victoriana for me actually means conquest and imperialism. And so, in a sense, it is actually my fear. So what I then decided to do was actually confront my fear and face my fear. And the way to confront my fear, to actually parody that fear. A lot of the work that came out of my desire to face my fear and to turn it into parody. The irony of all of this is that — since my work has actually been about what imperialism means and how that relates to my own identity — it’s quite ironic that I was then made a member of the order of the British Empire.” Yinka Shonibare on Chris Boyds Blog.
Shonibare’s point about the MBE is a valid one and goes to show how Europe still clings to its Imperial past and how even with post colonialism, the footprint of european culture would remain embedded around the world in all aspects of culture, including art, where there is still a dominance by the west today.
‘The Problematic of Eurocentrism and the relations amongst different cultures is particularly complex in the contemporary visual arts, where the Marco Polo syndrome embodies a double edged sword. Art in today’s conception of a self- sufficient activity based on aesthetics, is also a product of Western culture exported to others.’ (Mosquera.,1992.p.220)
What I love about Shonibare’s work is how these perceptions are played with. I for one assumed, without question that the fabric in the pieces were African in origin. However the fabric used in Yinka Shonibare’s work is actually European – bought by Shonibare in Brixton Market London (it is manufactured in Holland). The fabric was originally produced by Europeans during colonial times to be marketed to the Indonesians, an attempted copy of the batik designs found in Indonesian clothing. However the Indonesians were not interested in the mass produced fabrics and the Dutch turned their attention to Africa where the fabric became extremely popular and is worn in many parts (source). It has since become integrated into African identity and is important part of the culture but was not part of the culture before colonialism. It strikes me that this is a truly globalised fabric – with the design (Indonesian), production (British and Dutch) and the final market (Africa) all involved with its eventual creation.
Look even closer at the material and you will see imitations of famous European designer labels Vivienne Westwood and Chanel, seemingly a subversion of a symbol of current aspirational consumer culture and surely a question as to how much of Europe and the West still dominate other cultures?
Mosquera, G., 1992. The Marco Polo syndrome: Some problems around art and eurocentrism. Third Text, 21, p. 220