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Shonibare shows Cowboy Angels in British Museum

By Tajudeen Sowole
18 August 2019   |   3:17 am
Despite being revered globally, the Nigerian artist, Yinka Shonibare (CBE), in nearly two decades of practicing art, successfully, did not attract the attention of the British Museum until recently. No thanks to the U.S. President, Donald Trump.

Shonibare, British Museum: ©Reproduced by permission of the artist.

Despite being revered globally, the Nigerian artist, Yinka Shonibare (CBE), in nearly two decades of practicing art, successfully, did not attract the attention of the British Museum until recently. No thanks to the U.S. President, Donald Trump.

From issues such as race, economy and social injustice, art spaces across the world have had their share of the artistic thoughts of Shonibare in nearly two decades. His works of mostly sculptures, dressed in Dutch wax fabrics of African identity have been shown at museums and galleries in the world over.

Though knighted by the Queen of England, Shonibare is not done as regards his activism against insensitive leadership, so, explains his ongoing show at the British Museum, London, U.K.

Perhaps, for the first time, Shonibare’s art activism is taking on a living being – Trump. Opened on July 19, and showing till September 1, 2019, the exhibition, titled, Cowboy Angels, captures Trump’s xenophobic acts satirically.

With the help of the Rootstein Hopkins Foundation, the museum acquired the works ahead of the show. Interestingly, the collection is the British Museum’s first of the artist’s works.

With the show, the museum and Shonibare seemed to have joined the British Parliament and millions of people across the world in denouncing xenophobic rhetoric of public officeholders. It is no longer news that Trump may go down in history as the first American president not to address the House of Common. The British parliament, in 2016, barred him from addressing the House, breaking an old tradition between the two countries.

Trump’s last visit to the UK, in June, met with street protests said to have been organised by Stop Trump Coalition and involving 75,000 people. Also, the British Parliament held on to its ‘no Trump address’ stance.

“An address to both Houses of Parliament is not an automatic right; it is an earned honour,” Speaker, John Bercow, insisted, adding Trump will not be welcomed to address the House in 2017. “My view is that he has not earned that honour.”

In the British Museum show, his works on Trump include a set of five woodcuts with a collage application of the artist’s favourite materials, Dutch wax batik fabric. One of the works depicts Trump as a cowboy in wings and holding a rifle with his finger set to pull the trigger.

In another, Trump points a handgun at an imaginary victim of a xenophobic attack. Again, the cowboy mentality and costumes adorned the Trump character speaks volumes.

In a statement from the British Museum, Shonibare said: “Cowboy Angels are a reflection on the Zeitgeist at a time of xenophobia, racism and the election of Donald Trump in the United States.”

He described the theme as an “embodiment of good and evil,” but opposed to binary positions of positive and negative acts.

The African fabric in the works continues the artist’s signature in articulating complex colonial identity. “I have used African textiles in my work to trace the construction of my modern African identity as a residue of colonial relations between Africa and Europe,” Shonibare explained. “The fabrics are Indonesian inspired and produced by the Dutch. I also use the Financial Times in my prints to signify power relations.”

Beyond the political satires, the show has a cultural link in modern printmaking between Africa and America. “We’re delighted to have these works join the collection and to be displaying them for the first time,” Hugo Chapman, Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum said. “The combination of cloth and references to African masks in the prints has great resonance in a museum with such important African collections.”

Chapman noted that the cultural mix of African and American imagery in Shonibare’s works explains the British Museum’s “long-standing interest in American printmakers like Kara Walker, Willie Cole and Glenn Ligon who regularly explores the often troubled history of African-Americans in the US.”

He, however, said the showing of Cowboy Angel “is pure coincidence, but it does seem particularly relevant to be putting Yinka’s newly acquired works on show at the same time that race and nationhood are in the news in America.” He argued that the exhibition is “another example of how important art is in helping us make sense of the world we live in.”

In 2016, Shonibare showed at 14-18 NOW of World War 1 Centenary Art commissions in the U.K.

Co-commissioned by Turner Contemporary and ‘14-18 NOW’, Shonibare’s sculptural work at the show End of Empire explores how alliances forged in the First World War changed British society forever.

He was in Nigeria in 2017 for his Wind Sculpture VI, a six-meter-high public space work mounted at Ndubuisi Kanu Park, Ikeja, Lagos, and shown till January 2017. He was also the headline artist at the 2018 Art X, where he gave the keynote address.

In 2013, two editions of the work were exhibited at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, England, and also at Cannonball Paradise, Gerisch Stiftung, Neumunster, Germany in 2014.