Yinka Shonibare MBE, Last Supper (after Leonardo), 2013, mixed media, 5’ 1/5” x 24’ 1/3” x 8’ 1/2”.


Yinka Shonibare MBE is one of the foremost figures of postcolonial contemporary art. He was born in London but moved to Nigeria at the age of three, returning later to the UK to study fine art. His most iconic sculptures of headless men, women, and children evoke this physical displacement as well the universal language of globalization. He currently has a full retrospective showing at Yorkshire Sculpture Park from March 2 to September 1, 2013, and an exhibition of new work at Stephen Friedman Gallery, London from March 16 to April 20, 2013.

MY SCULPTURES ARE HEADLESS because being headless disavows humor. They look strange, a bit surrealistic, yet you can’t pin them down. From the ambiguous shade of their skin, you can’t even say they belong to a particular race. In their anatomical positions, they try to perform an action that, with a head, would normally be quite easy to do. At the same time, not having heads allows them to do what they’re trying to do. So they’re still rather funny. They actually started as a joke about the French Revolution, when guillotines were used to chop off the heads of the aristocracy. I’m never able to just stick to a singular moral stance because I always feel context is everything. We’re all capable of being greedy.

Because of the current banking crisis, there’s an ever-increasing gap between the very wealthy and the people who are just trying to get by. Children, the eventual bearers of this disparity, often appear in my sculptures because they closely emulate their parents. In terms of ideology, children will get indoctrinated into holding their same ideas very early. A little rich girl, just like those depicted in my piece Little Rich Girls from 2010 may not be aware of where her privilege comes from. But if she has parents who own factories in African countries, they make money off the back of pollution by turning a blind eye. So she’ll live in a big mansion, skipping and playing, not knowing that her ambivalence and happiness come from something darker.

I probably would have grabbed onto the money too. I’m human, after all; I have a personality that can be frivolous and serious, and it certainly can be dark. They’re human emotions and I don’t think anyone, regardless of their race or gender, should be excluded from having and expressing a wide range of them in their work. Homi Bhabha’s theories of hybridity come to mind. None of us have isolated identities anymore, and that’s a factor of globalization ultimately. I suppose I’m a direct product of that. The fabrics I use also look like they could be just African, because they are used a lot there. But what you see on the surface is not really what you always get. The fabric has a complicated history in its trade routes: It was originally designed as an Indonesian fabric, produced by the Dutch, and the British sold it into the African market. It’s a perfect metaphor for multilayered identities.

In a way, my sculptures produce this volume. It’s most apparent in Wind Sculptures, which capture the wind to produce something tangible out of the intangible. The shape of the sails capture a moment, like how the headless sculptures portray a larger historical moment. The difference between them is that something as insignificant as a breeze is turned into something monumental, while a historical time period is made universally ambivalent. That’s significant. Ultimately, I’m trying to grasp living with more than one culture in my head.

— As told to Ashitha Nagesh