Scratch the Surface
Review by Corinna Lotz
Artist Yinka Shonibare MBE made an impassioned appeal that British multiculturalism should “never be reversed” at the opening of his Scratch the Surface installation at the National Gallery. “There are certain politicians” he said, “who are trying to reverse the achievements of multiculturalism in Britain because of a few criminal elements, such as terrorists”. London’s success was based on its international openness which he said was beneficial to us all and had no equivalent in other countries.
Could this have been aimed at Gordon Brown’s new Culture Minister and darling of the BNP, Margaret Hodge, who attended the launch wearing a cream trouser suit and a Cheshire cat smile?
The artist explained he wanted to intrigue a contemporary audience by comparing the disputes in the age of Wilberforce and the abolitionists to arguments over hunting and cruelty to animals in the 21st century.
Shonibare, who describes himself as a “post-colonial hybrid”, was born in the UK, but raised in Lagos, Nigeria. Over the past decade he has emerged as a major figure in contemporary British art. He was the artist of choice for Jonah Albert, a young curator working at the National Gallery as part of the Inspire Fellowship scheme.
Famous for his sophisticated and amazingly executed takes on famous white, upper class, European works of art especially of the 18th century, Shonibare has a unique ability to do prick and tease out sensibilities and cultural amalgams. He does this precisely by taking us from the fashionable veneer of things through to their content. He uses the trappings of earlier periods and fashions when slavery was a given, but looks at it through the eyes of today, to turn the class-serving idealised fantasy against itself.
Using his trademark “African” fabrics, which are in fact easily found in Brixton market, Shonibare revels in the irony that what people see as African was originally an Indonesian batik design that was produced in Holland. The playful illustrations of everything from bathtubs to guns on these fabrics provide an ironic subtext and their rich colours a luxurious feel. The drapery on the headless mannequins is deployed with a confident touch, weaving together history and humour.
The installation at the National Gallery is in two parts, beginning with two famous 18th century portraits that usually hang in the opulent Barry Rooms, but have been moved into Room 1. Joshua Reynolds’ Colonel Tarleton is a dashing, idealised portrait of a young officer and Mrs Oswald by Johann Zoffany presents an elegantly attired lady of leisure, dressed in many strings of pearls, lace and silk, holding a fancy hat. That’s the image – but what lies behind and what connects the two?
Their wealth and property was inseparable from the slave trade, as indeed was the rise of British capitalism and its empire at this time. Pleasant as the young blade looks, Tarleton was notorious for his brutality in the colonial war against the American settlers. As Member of Parliament for Liverpool he opposed Wilberforce’s campaign against the slave trade on behalf of his constituency, steeped as it was in all aspects of the trade. Mrs Oswald was raised in Jamaica and her family owed its wealth to plantations in the West Indies.
In the Barry Rooms, the brutal reality behind the surface of the canvas bursts into three dimensions as Shonibare places two elegantly attired but headless hunting figures on pedestals shooting into the sky. Above our head, a pheasant spatters into red bits across the gilt-encrusted arches of the ceiling, a splendour of pink and cream.
Paraphrasing the artist, we should thank the National Gallery for being the custodian of tradition and painting and for not being afraid to be cool. Encouraging young ethnic minority curators to give Shonibare a prominent and free display is a brilliant enterprise. At the same time, it is a mistake to see slavery and the arguments over it as simply in the distant past. Although it is illegal in international law, there are still an estimated 27 million men, women and children who are slaves in the 21st century; some are victims of military regimes, others produce the raw materials and the commodities used in the global economy.
28 July 2007