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In a style-sensitive take on the relationship between Europe and Africa, the 41-year-old artist crafts African batik fabrics into 18th and 19th century-style garments. But he also sews the colorful prints into stuffed aliens, to reflect society’s fears of the unknown, whether cultural or extraterrestrial. The Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea here hosts Shonibare’s exhibition, “Double Dress,” through Sept. 14.
One of the show’s most striking pieces reinterprets Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s Rococo painting, “The Swing.” In Shonibare’s version, a batik-bedecked mannequin seductively kicks her legs up on a garden swing. But the top layer of this aristocrat’s frilly frock is printed with a Chanel logo. She is also headless, in a cheeky nod to the imminent French Revolution. Nothing put an end to those idle days quite like the guillotine.
The exhibition also offers ample opportunities to catch a glimpse of the artist himself. A series of photographs depicts Shonibare, who was born in London, moved to Nigeria as a child and returned to London to study art, dressed as a Victorian dandy.
Batiks, a product of cross-cultural pollination, are often considered an intrinsically African fabric, though they originated in Indonesia, where Dutch colonists produced them industrially. The English copied the process, making batiks in Manchester and exporting them to West Africa. Shonibare purchases his materials closer to home — at London’s Brixton Market.