The Yale Center for British Art is screening films by Yinka Shonibare from Sept. 1 to Dec. 11 in the center’s lecture hall as part of its broader exhibition of the artist’s work.
Shonibare is a British-Nigerian artist best known for his use of contemporary ideas to provide artistic commentary on colonialism and cultural inter-sectionalization, according to the YCBA’s profile of the artist, as well as his widely-acclaimed “Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle,” a sculpture commissioned for London’s Trafalgar Square.
Shonibare is also revered for his use of Dutch wax-printed fabrics in depicting colonial figures such as Admiral Lord Nelson, whom Shonibare considers to be a symbol of Britain’s imperialism. His fabrics are essentially only associated with Africa in pattern and style but originate from Indonesia and Holland. Shonibare buys them himself from Brixton Market in London.
“But actually, the fabrics are not really authentically African the way people think,” Shonibare said about the cross-cultural nature of the clothing seen in a lot of his work. “They prove to 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.”
The bi-weekly screenings at the YCBA include three of Shonibare’s films: “Un Ballo in Maschera,” “Odile and Odette” and “Addio del Passato.” All three works carry heavy elements of music, dance, architecture and clothing.
“Un Ballo in Maschera,” Shonibare’s first film, depicts the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden in 1792 at a masked ball. The film interprets the murder through the means of coordinated dance and masquerade customs to highlight the societal presence and stratosphere that incidentally allowed the killing to take place.
Shinobare employs a large ensemble for this production and uses his technique of cultural amalgamation through his cast’s clothing to comment on British imperialism. The entire cast is wearing clothing traditional to the British colonial period in structure and style, but made of Shonibare’s signature fabrics depicting Britain’s involvement and authority over vast regions of Africa.
The film runs through the plot several times with small variations each time and then carries out the entire chronology in rewind, focusing on the facial expressions shown by King Gustav III. The plot closes each time with the subject falling onto the floor, a theme repeated in the two remaining films.
“Odile and Odette” is a silent ballet inspired by Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The film depicts two ballerinas, one white and one black, as reflections of each other through what is shown to be a mirror. The film uses no music and ends similarly with the ballerina’s graceful and intended fall.
“Addio del Passato” is an extension of Shonibare’s larger work on the legacy of Admiral Lord Nelson. It envisions Fanny, Nelson’s estranged wife, singing Verdi’s La Traviata after reading a letter that leads her to imagine her husband drinking wine with another woman out at sea. The costumes in the film are from Shonibare’s “Nelson’s Jacket/Fanny’s Dress” which are also seen in his series, “Fake Death Pictures.”
Some shots from the aforementioned series are also overlain during the film. The production similarly ends with a fall and follows the structure of his first film, with plot repetitions and small variations.
Although the screening played to a nearly empty lecture hall on Tuesday, Hana Davis ’20, who attended due to her interest in art history, said she appreciated the consistency of Shonibare’s use of African fabrics, including in the Ballerina’s outfit.
A reception and viewing of Shonibare’s installations and films will be held on Oct. 25 at 5:30 p.m. at the Yale University Art Gallery.