Sunday, 24 November 2013


A while back the family went to have look in Little Narnia (no, really) and saw something that has stayed with us since then.

Would you like to know more?

The images are, of course, from the Yorkshire Sculpture Park installation by Yinka Shonibare MBE. We went along originally because the YSP was a favourite haunt of the children's, hence the moniker 'Little Narnia', and we weren't really expecting much from the main exhibition by this oddly named artist that I, naively, assumed must be pretentious and female. Not so. We were somewhat wowed by the use fabric and dress to evoke a time that both of us ought to find pleasantly familiar but that made me feel rather challenged. And I like it when art challenges me to think in new ways.

A Bull market?
For example, take Revolution Kid, the boy with the head of a bull calf. For a start, the pose is lifted almost entirely from the awesome Liberty Leading the People, thereby referencing a genuine revolution and the active role that youth played within it. Secondly, the gun is a replica of the gold plated weapons favoured by Colonel Gaddafi, bear in mind that this was made during and after the civil war in Libya. Then there's the fact that the bull calf is the head rather than any other part of the body - the attitude of the youthful revolutionaries personified and neither deified nor ridiculed, but noted and respected nevertheless. The clothing too, a mixture of late Regency (thus white history) and Dutch print fabrics associated with Africa, and so a comment on the hypocrisy of the West (the Dutch print fabrics were made from raw materials supplied by Africa and chiefly sold back to the people there at a much high price) in relation to the revolutionary activity. Also, one hand holds a Blackberry phone in twin recognition of the power of social media in the Arab Spring and the London Riots in 2011.

Terrible beauty
Then there's How to blow two heads off at once (Ladies) which is one of my favourites. It wasn't actually at the YSP when we visited either time but I feel that it speaks to me more than do the other works. Here we have two female mannequin posed in a dueling posture with eighteenth century flintlock pistols. I love the fact that, because they are headless, it is impossible to discern emotion or how the participants are taking the stance. Are they seriously having a duel or are they playfighting with the idea that they will make up? Then there's the dress - inkeeping with the period of the weapons but again with the Dutch print fabric design that was explained above. In this case I feel that it enhances that style of clothing from the era and brings out the flamboyant nature of the time and the act that they are engaged in. Not to mention that, because these are women with firearms, we are subverting the commonly accepted view of aggression and honour even in the modern world. And I like that kind of thing.

Also, the noise from the water as you
looked around the whole room with
these things in plays an interesting
I was also very taken with the Four Elements where each element was personified in a different way. The man representing fire with a gas lamp for a head with a stance that suggests he has been surprised by an idea that, with a gas lamp for a head, he must have had. Or the water man who is pouring a drink that he can never have because his head is the tap that pours the water (and, ominously, has an Indian complexion). Or the woman struggling against a high wind for a representation of air, her dress wrapped against her legs and her body bowed against the pressure of the wind that blows in her face meaning that she must struggle against the tide. I love the parallel to Feminism, whether or not he meant it, and the way that there is the intersectionality of oppression hinted at with the pigmentation of the skin on this one (Shonibare ought to know, he's black and increasingly disabled). The one that really brought this home to me, though, was the one for earth. In which we have a figure in a posture reminiscent of strength and power in clothing that is all in 'earthy' tones and a deliberately vague pigmentation that could be anyone and anywhere. More to the point, the generally male figure has breasts and is wearing a long dress over a pair of trousers, which I love as a comment on how the Earth ought to be.

Terrible beauty again.
One wonders if that is what Shonibare
shoots for with much of his work. The most
classically 'beautiful' of his work is often
coupled with an underlying strand of pain,
misery or just plain cruelty. But even that
strand stands apart as almost
beautiful. Like a mushroom cloud.
Finally there's the ballerina on a mushroom cloud that was loved by the Girlie. I honestly don't know how best to interpret this but there is definitely something that keeps me coming back to look at it. The graceful beauty of the ballerina echoed in the deadly beauty of a nuclear explosion and then opposed almost at the same time by the terrible nature of that black cloud rising into the sky. The combination of death and the prettiness that is equally present in the young mannequin with no head - a life devoted to an art form that is increasingly seen as irrelevant and flippant but also that spits out the young when they become too old with little to support them and few transferable skills but the memory of their training and the money we hope they put away during their time as performers. That's for most, not all. It was that same transience that I caught when looking at works by Degas that captivated me in Sixth Form. That feeling that these women were not actually being represented for their beauty but for the fact that they would soon pass. A sadness over their actions and their futility, after all, Degas didn't know it but the First World War was coming to sweep away the life that he was recording. Shonibare does know it, he clearly knows his history, and has juxtaposed his dancer with war of another kind that would sweep everything away.

If you haven't, he's worth checking out. So is the YSP!

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