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reviews Yinka Shonibare MBE Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney September 24, 2008 –February 1, 2009 Brooklyn Museum, New York June 26–September 20, 2009 National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC November 11, 2009–March 7, 2010 The eponymous midcareer retrospective of the London-­ based artist Yinka Shonibare MBE premiered at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; it subsequently traveled to the Brooklyn Museum, New York, and then to the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. In this ambitious but not overwhelming survey, curator Rachel Kent assembled the largest number of the artist’s works shown together to date: more than thirty objects and installations , including paintings, photographs , sculptures, and films. This balanced selection of works by Shonibare, who is best known for his distinctive headless figures habitually clad in European period costumes made of Dutch wax fabric, effectively highlighted both long-­ standing themes in the artist’s oeuvre— ­ the complex relationship between colonial and postcolonial history, art history as archive, European decadence— ­ and his more recent focus on cinematic strategies and contemporary global politics.1 The exhibition’s bilevel installation at the National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC, the focus of this review, invited the viewer to enjoy a particular kind of spectatorial experience. The curatorial challenge of installing works on separate floors inspired a creative solution for visually connecting the two spheres of the show. Poised before a glassless picture window opening onto the upper register of the double-­ height gallery below , the viewer could simultaneously glimpse a film, Odile and Odette (2005); the dramatically suspended carriage and headless, sexually engaged sculptural figures in Gallantry and Criminal Conversation (2002); the photographic series The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (2008); and more. According to Leon Battista Alberti, the window presents a structure for controlling representational space according to the position of the viewer. This Albertian aperture produced an unlikely panoramic view of works executed by Shonibare in different mediums. But the viewer was afforded access to a second trope identified by the Italian theorist, who, in writing about painting in the fifteenth century, noted the efficacious convention of including a peripheral figure in compositions in order to invite viewers to explore (or to caution them to avoid) the istoria represented therein.2 Shonibare’s 19th Century Kid (Queen Victoria) (1999), a dramatically lit miniature headless figure reaching up from the floor below and installed atop a tall column, strategically guided and beckoned the viewer to enjoy an artfully framed miniretrospective that stands as a metaphor for this show. By juxtaposing works in different mediums executed at various points in time over the past fifteen years, this exhibition provided both a vehicle for the artist’s most visually stunning works and a panoptical framework, illuminating the aesthetic and conceptual affinities that subtly bind together the artist’s discrete endeavors. Sculptural assemblage, photographic series, and films all allow Shonibare to emphasize narrative as a conceptual tool, though in different ways. By deploying each of these mediums, Shonibare unravels the perceived coherence of narrative and exposes its fictive conceits. Moreover, exhibiting the works together produces another register of meaning at the level of form; when probed on a deeper level, then, these narratives are emptied of their Yinka Shonibare MBE, Odile and Odette, 2005. High-­ definition digital video, edition 1 of 6, color, sound, duration 0:14:28. Courtesy the artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London, and James Cohan Gallery, New York© 2010 by Nka Publications Journal of Contemporary African Art• 27• Fall 2010 122 • Nka supposed content. This comes through most clearly in the film Un ballo in maschera (2004), where the artist’s emphatic editorial manipulation of sound and image, faster and slower, forward and backward, in conjunction with his signature costumes and theatrical settings, leaves the viewer conscious of the arbitrary quality of stories that remain at the mercy of the manipulative forms through which they emerge. This self-­ conscious staginess likewise appears in the two episodic photographic series starring the artist himself, though cast to a different end. The twelve predominantly black-­ and-­ white scenes that constitute Dorian Gray (2001) and the five large-­ format color images that form Diary of a...


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