When the Barnes Foundation moved into its new building two years ago, it announced its special-exhibitions program would include shows of contemporary art. But its first two exhibitions—one on the life of collector Albert C. Barnes, who established the foundation in 1922, and the other of work by Ellsworth Kelly—left some people wondering. “Yinka Shonibare MBE: Magic Ladders,” however, demonstrated that the Barnes does intend to get serious about showing new art that complements its collection and the principles of its public programs. The exhibition squared both with Barnes’s interest in African art, and—with its multiple references to knowledge and opportunity—his belief that lives could be transformed through art and education.
A British artist of Nigerian descent, Shonibare addresses cultural identity and the legacy of colonialism in his work. His installations often feature mannequins dressed in Western period costumes fashioned from sumptuous “African” textiles that are actually manufactured in the Netherlands. He is no stranger to Philadelphia, having been an artist-in-residence at the city’s Fabric Workshop and Museum in 2002. His show for the Barnes reflected a familiarity with Philadelphia’s history and its early prominence as a center of education. The “magic ladders” scattered throughout the exhibition were library ladders, each supporting a sculpture of a child, frozen in mid-climb.
These mannequins were given world globes as heads, which seemed a clichéd comment on the natural curiosity of children. Other mannequins, these without heads, were posed at writing tables and school desks. (The artist has said that his figures are headless because he doesn’t want them to be racially identifiable.) The references here, to literacy and learning, were likewise too obvious. Nevertheless, the sheer extravagance of pieces like Shonibare’s 2003 Scramble for Africa, a sculpture of 14 headless power brokers—representing the 14 European leaders present at the Berlin Conference of 1884–85—seated around a table, compensated for Shonibare’s occasionally heavy-handed symbolism. So too did the fact that his works for this show seemed perfectly in tune with their venue, its founder, and his city.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 104.