Tuesday, 3 February 2015



Un Ballo in Maschera (detail)      Image credits: Andrea Edwards ( Morley College)

Un Ballo in Maschera   Image credits: Andrea Edwards ( Morley College)
I remember the moment I first saw a work by Yinka Shonibare. It was a dazzling take on a Rococo painting called The Swing by the French painter Fragonard in 1767, which you could call charming or shallow or erotic. The Swing became an immediate success and can be seen at the Wallace Collection, a national museum in an historic town house in central London.

The work which grabbed my attention was Shonibare's The Swing (after Fragonard), an installation  in which a life-size woman mannequin leans back on a swing caught at the highest point as it goes forward. Her right knee is bent, her left leg stretches out in front, causing her skirts to ride up. She appears to have just kicked off her left shoe, which hangs mid-air in front of the figure, suspended on invisible wire. 

But the mannequin is headless, a powerful comment on what the artist thinks of the style and politics of the original painting.  Like  the dancers in  Un Ballo in Maschera, she is extravagantly dressed in 18C costume. But in both works lace and silk and tulle are replaced by what we call 'African textiles', the stuff out of which ship's sails were made.

Born in England and raised in Lagos, Shonibare questions  the tangled relationships between Europe and Africa and their economic and political histories. What makes his work so recognisable is his use of brightly-coloured exciting "African" fabrics, the kind on sale in Brixton market. Shonibare said: "We think of these fabrics as African textiles; in fact these are Indonesian textiles produced by the Dutch for the African market...they were ... manufactured in Manchester. (They) are a metaphor for the global connections of contemporary people...'They ...have a crossbred cultural background quite of their own. And it’s the fallacy of that signification that I like. It’s the way I view culture – it’s an artificial construct."

Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) was chosen for for this exhibition because of  its connection with Samuel Morley MP, the man who in 1889 founded Morley Memorial College for Working Men and Women. He was a Methodist philanthropist whose Christian beliefs made him campaign for fair wages and free education for the working classes. He was also an abolitionist who wrote the foreword to freed US slave, Joseph Henson (which was later immortalised in Uncle Tom's Cabin). Morley's  Victorian building was largely destroyed in the Blitz in 1940 with a terrible loss of life. A new college designed by Charles Cowles-Voysey and Brandon Jones was completed in 1958. It has a strong connection with the arts, including music: Gustav Holst, Michael Tippett and Ralph Vaughan Williams have all directed and taught at Morley.

You may have seen Yinka Shonibare's HMS VICTORY, an installation which stood on one of the plinths in Trafalgar Square 2010 - 2012 (My blog No 19)

 P.S. Lastly, I cannot resist including this...
Reverend on Ice (2005) is Shonibare's take on the much beloved painting attributed to Sir Henry Raeburn  The Skating  Minister or The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch  ( 1790s)     

www.morley gallery.ac.uk 
www.wallacecollection.org/ www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/his/CoreArt/art/anc_frag_swing.html


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