February 17–March 19, at James Cohan, New York
Yinka Shonibare MBE’s latest show in New York was something of a micro-retrospective including the artist’s celebrated photo series Dorian Gray (2001) and the huge installation Victorian Philanthropist’s Parlour (1996-7), last seen at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia in 2014.
The show, however, was dominated by The British Library (2014), a work originally commissioned in the UK and installed at the Old Reference Library at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery. The complete piece contains 10,000 books, though only 6,000 were included here. Shonibare bound them in the brightly colored Dutch wax-printed fabric with which his work is nowadays immediately associated. Names were embossed in gold on the spines of many of the books. These turn out to be those of individuals who were either immigrants to Britain or the children of immigrants. Scattered among them were also names of people who have spoken out against immigration.
Some are more familiar than others: on one shelf Gerry Rafferty (pop singer of “Baker Street” fame, born in Scotland of Irish parents) sits adjacent to Expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka (born in Austria). On another shelf, Shonibare’s own volume is nestled between Austrian-born Theologian Fredrich von Hügel and Prince Harry’s sometime girlfriend Chelsy Davy (born in Zimbabwe in 1985).
Shonibare’s central point is simple enough. British life would be that much poorer absent the contributions of these immigrants, and the impoverishment would be clear at every cultural level. Besides those already mentioned, other names figure in: of soccer players, writers, politicians, TV personalities, actors, and—probably just as importantly—plenty of people you’ve never heard of.
That cultural life functions at many levels simultaneously is a recurrent theme in Shonibare’s art. So is the issue of possession, which is determined by economic and social class. A library is a particularly ordered accumulation of things that are possessed, and—for an artist as focused on colonialism as Shonibare—it inevitably echoes another kind of possession: slavery. Thus, Shonibare suggests, while the immigrants he identifies contribute something to Britishness, Britain strips them of some part of themselves in accepting them.
Shonibare’s work has been tightly focused on racial and cultural politics for as long as he has been in the public eye. It is an indication of his art’s depth and complexity that, given our current political realities, his work requires no reinterpretation. It just seems more relevant than ever.