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Yinka Shonibare at the Musee de Quai Branly

by Sara Wajid
6 May 2007 • Comment (1) • Print
Posted: General Issue [0] | Review

yinka_shonibareI blame Yinka Shonibare MBE. I would never have got into a row with the director of the Musee de Quai Branly over ‘the colour’ of his workforce if it hadn’t been for the British Nigerian artist. In fact I probably would never have set foot in a French cultural institution housing non-western ethnographic collections, if I hadn’t been lured there by an new installation by an artist of Shonibare’s stature.

This is an important point in favour of the commission; on the level of ‘branding’ it simply cannot be faulted. Take one culturally suspect institution (the interior decor has been described as ‘jungle whimsy’ and the very idea of grouping non-western collections under one roof raises the spectres of ‘exoticism’, ‘primitivism’ and ‘orientalism’). Add an ambitious commission by a painfully cool black artist with impeccable political credentials and hey presto – instant cultural legitimacy.

But it would be wrong to dismiss the Garden of Love as artistic ‘Hellman’s mayonnaise’ for unpalatable historical collections. The viewer wanders through an elaborate garden labyrinth, and after a few wrong turns through the leafy tunnels, finds dimly-lit clearings inhabited by three couples of lovers, taken from the images in the Progress of Love by Jean Honore Fragonard. The aristocratic period costumes are made out of Shonibare’s trademark African wax-print textiles bought in Brixton market. The decadent, romancing figures are headless, foreshadowing the grim beheadings of the imminent revolution.

I felt like a peeping Tom watching doomed beautiful orchid-like couples frolicking in ignorance of the fragility of their hot-house lives. For Shonibare the period

when nobility lived luxuriously, shortly before their world was turned upside down by the masses’ resonates with contemporary situation as ‘people in the South see Europe as an overflowing basket of fruit.

Garden of Love conveys the sensibility of this concorde of a museum admirably: nuanced, self-interrogating and stylish. Shonibare’s headless aristocrats made me more receptive somehow to the ‘non-western’ decapitated heads on display in the main gallery. As a British Asian I simply felt more welcome at Musee de Quai Branly for being introduced to it through the artwork of a British Nigerian aesthete with a wicked sense of humour.

But it still felt very odd that the only black or minority ethnic staff I met on my day-long visit were cleaning and staffing the cloakroom. Stephane Martin, the director, could not tell me what proportion of senior management at the museum is ‘non-western’ because it’s apparently not their policy to hold such information. And anyway it would be ‘so embarrassing’ to ask such questions. As if to demonstrate exactly how ugly such a line of enquiry could be, he asked me bullishly if I considered myself ‘of colour’ in front of a large table of exclusively white curators, press officers and fellow journalists.

Shonibare has consistently dealt with historical themes in his work and the large-scale nature of this delicately curated commission is not remotely tokenistic, nor was the exhibition preceeding it: La Bouche du Roi by Beninese artist, Romuald Hazoume.

But why do museums have more success in one-off commissions to black artists than in recruiting a representative permanent workforce?

Lately there has been a trend (some might say cliché) in the UK to commission black artists as part of the commemoration of the bicentenary of the parliamentary abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. It’s obvious why these sort of commissions are so attractive. When residencies or commissions are successful, as in the critically acclaimed Susan Hiller at the Freud Museum they make lasting art and defamiliarise familiar collections for existing audiences as well as attracting new people. Many artists interested in race and history are unsurprisingly non-white themselves. This is frankly an added bonus. Most museum professionals responsible for black history are all too keen to work with specialists, particularly those from the cultural background they want to reach.

But both contemporary art and cultural ownership of our racially loaded heritage are very contentious areas demanding high levels of skill and confidence. Blunders are common.

Sophie Howarth, Head of Education and Research at the Institute of International Visual Arts (INIVA) says, “There is not always expertise in commissioning contemporary art within historical museums.” One common difficulty is that Museums naturally seek to promote the interpretation of their own collections and are too directive, asking artists to respond to primary sources in need of ‘cultural re-appropriation’ to put it nicely.

This approach can render the artist a sort of sophisticated adman for the collections and result in mediocre art which helps nobody. As Howarth says,

We have to ask (in these situations) if it’s lack of quality on the artist’s front or if curators are making the artwork serve another purpose.

Artist, Said Adrus agrees in light of his collaboration with Woking Galleries to create, Pavilion with a View, a video installation about a historic Muslim soldiers burial ground.

Woking’s remit was educational rather than artistic and they didn’t seem to realize the full artistic potential of the work (which has since shown at Tate Britain). The individuals I worked with were very supportive, but their hands were tied by local authority bureaucracy and they were too cautious. They just don’t have the budget for contemporary art or appreciate how expensive it is.

Ironically, contemporary art is often imagined to be more accessible than social history and help attract younger more diverse audiences. But history-enthusiast are not necessarily art-lovers. Zoe Whitely, curator of ‘Uncomfortable Truths’ at the V&A (see p.42 April 2007 Museums Journal) found that first-time audiences who had been specifically attracted to the V&A by the slavery theme of the exhibition were often hoping for a more exhaustive social history experience, rather than the tangential artistic one on offer.

Commissioning big name artists like Shonibare can result in great art and positive publicity for permanent collections but it shouldn’t be compensating for unrepresentative workforces. In England, we call that all fur coat and no knickers.

Contributor biog pending
All posts by: Sara Wajid | Email | Website

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