Jan 03 2014

Let them eat cake: An interview with Yinka Shonibare

by Stephanie Bailey

“Dreaming Rich” is an extension of British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare’s critical and intellectual interest in colonialism and postcolonialism, and their impact on identity, politics and economic realities. On the occasion of his first solo exhibition in Hong Kong, at Pearl Lam Galleries, the artist shows a series of new works commenting on Hong Kong’s relationship to labor, power and wealth. ArtAsiaPacific caught up with the artist in his London studio to discuss how these themes might bear relevance in a global context.

How did the context of Hong Kong inspire “Dreaming Rich”?

It really started from the global financial crisis and thinking about the gap between rich and poor. I do know that Hong Kong real estate is very expensive and also that people have been complaining about the wealth gap, not to mention the impact of those who come from the mainland into the city. But this is not just an issue relating to Hong Kong, it is a global issue too—the gap between rich and poor is widening.

YINKA SHONIBARECake Man (detail), 2013, unique life-size mannequin, Dutch wax African printed-cotton textile, leather, gold, polyester and plaster, 315 × 88 × 120 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries.

Can you talk about the works in this exhibition—specifically Cake Man and the two Champagne Kid pieces (all 2013)?

Cake Man is essentially about greed, the burden of carrying wealth and never having enough. Even though it weighs you down, you still want more. As for the Champagne Kid works, they are intoxicated children.

There is another aspect to the show, too. Through the gallery, I spoke to a number of homeless people to find out what they would do if they had large sums of money. Some said they would buy an apartment, or they would pay for their wife to come to Hong Kong. Others were sick and said they would use the money to pay for treatment. These answers were incorporated into the paper works.

Considering your interest in postcolonialism and your own bicultural perspective, Hong Kong is the perfect place for you to show your work.

That bicultural aspect does manifest itself in the work I produce, given the history of the wax fabrics and also my references to Victorian imagery and costumes and so on. I think people in Hong Kong might identify with that, or with the kind of cultural split that comes from this legacy, since this becomes an identity in itself. I think those who have actually had that colonial experience shouldn’t necessarily be forced to choose one side, because their identity is formed from that mixture. I see it as making a new kind of global person.

YINKA SHONIBAREChampagne Kid (Balancing), 2013, unique life-size mannequin, Dutch wax African printed-cotton textile, leather, resin, chair, globe and Cristal champagne bottle, 188 × 74 × 90 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries.

Are nationalist ideas still prevalent today?

Often these questions relate to a power and wealth dynamic and, unfortunately, wealth always wins. This is a global phenomenon that is not just specific to Hong Kong. In China and Hong Kong there are ideological issues, such as how to mediate between the power of the state and capitalist freedom, that people will have to negotiate over a period of time.

This kind of cultural critique that incorporates economic and political issues is characteristic of your work.

I think it is very difficult to talk about any kind of political issue without some kind of underlying economic argument. For example, in the history of China itself, the politics of capitalism against communism has the role of the market behind it. But today, the question is which model the market will be based on: Western or Chinese?

This relates to the question of whether China is engaged in a form of modern-day imperialism in Africa.

Yes, China is very active in Africa, buying up land for agriculture, construction and mining. I think African governments are quite happy to do business with China because the terms of the relationship are quite different from those with the West, which are often about democracy and human rights. The Chinese don’t necessarily interfere with local quarrels or issues, whereas the Western approach can be quite condescending to the Africans. China doesn’t actually go into countries to colonize them, that’s not the way the Chinese do business. There are no childlike approaches, so it’s obvious why African governments would choose to do business with China. Yes, people might find it controversial, but when it comes to choosing between people who treat you like children or people who treat you as equals, there wouldn’t be much of a debate as to whom you would work with.

YINKA SHONIBAREChampagne Kid (Swinging), 2013, unique life-size mannequin, Dutch wax African printed-cotton textile, leather, resin, chair, globe and Cristal champagne bottle, 178 × 85 × 76 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries.

But of course China may be the lesser of two evils, which brings me back to Hong Kong and your exhibition. The image of the burdened Cake Man might represent a kind of imperial father while the “drunk children”—the Champagne Kid sculptures—are the colonized, infantilized by imperialism.

It always comes down to resources when we think about these things. The show in Hong Kong, though it does reference the city, is actually pointing toward a global phenomenon. Though the situation might be more pronounced in Hong Kong, we are also seeing a widening gap between rich and poor in London, it’s even bigger than it was even in the 1960s. Maybe it’s global connectivity, or the markets have become more intense, but today people have wealth they would never have dreamed of years ago.

It is funny that you are presenting this critique in a white-cube space, which arguably caters to the world’s wealthiest.

It is somewhat ironic for an artist to critique the system of the market within a commercial gallery setting, yes. But I think it is the perfect audience, because these are the people who are privileged, and raising the issue among less privileged people wouldn’t do much anyway. What are they going to do about it? So it is about awareness. But there is a degree of entertainment to it, too; an aesthetic pleasure is produced while raising issues pertinent to our time.

Yinka Shonibare’s “Dreaming Rich” is on view at Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong, through January 9, 2014.

Stephanie Bailey is the managing editor of Ibraaz, a consulting editor for Naked Punch and an editorial correspondent for Ocula.