Though Admiral Lord Nelson may have died over two centuries ago, his legacy can still be revisited in unexpected ways at Yale today.
On Tuesday evening, the Yale University Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art featured British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare MBE for a conversation about the artist’s ongoing exhibition in the YCBA. The discussion took place at the YUAG Auditorium and was between Shonibare and Kobena Mercer, professor of the history of art and African American Studies at Yale.
“Yinka Shonibare MBE” is an exhibition currently on display in the YCBA, focusing on Shonibare’s works related to the life and legacy of Admiral Nelson, an 18th century British flag officer. The installations feature some of Shonibare’s most renowned works such as Nelson’s “Ship in a Bottle” and the “Fake Death Picture” series, which is a miniature version of the sculpture originally commissioned for display in London’s Trafalgar Square.
The showcase also included three of Shonibare’s films and was curated by Martina Droth, deputy director of research and curator of sculpture at the YCBA.
“[Shonibare’s work] places in question the moral state of a man who was lionized for his many naval triumphs on behalf of the British nation, particularly during the Napoleonic Wars, but whose code of ethics failed to extend to the woman closest to him in his personal life,” said Amy Meyers, director of the YCBA.
Mercer began the discussion by admiring Shonibare’s body of work addressing the legacy of Admiral Nelson. He asked Shonibare about his distinctive use of African fabrics, specifically in the sculpture of Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle.
Shonibare explained that his work is known for using these fabrics. He said that growing up in London and Nigeria, he thought these fabrics were made in West Africa, and that when he saw the exact same fabrics in the Brixton market, he questioned whether they were authentic.
“What does authenticity mean?” Shonibare said. “That’s something difficult for someone of my background. I cannot be authentically African and I can neither be authentically British.”
When Mercer asked how the sculpture was selected for installation at Trafalgar Square, Shonibare recounted the time he was invited to pitch ideas to a panel. Shonibare said he wanted to do a contextually relevant piece, and seeing Nelson’s Column, a sculpture already in Trafalgar Square, he researched the Battle of Trafalgar and learned of its historical representation of the wars between Great Britain and France.
Later in the discussion, Shonibare elaborated on the presence of the boat in a ship, saying that he wishes his work to be playful and serious at the same time. He talked about representing “multicultural London” through his work and relishing the interpretations of viewers, citing how nationalists and antinationalists in Britain thought the sculpture memorialized Nelson and British imperialism in a way that suited their respective ideologies.
Mercer and Shonibare discussed “Nelson’s Jacket” and “Fanny’s Dress” in detail, the latter citing how his research into Nelson led to an unending intrigue into Nelson’s wife, Fanny, and his mistress, Lady Hamilton. Shonibare’s comments about Nelson being “a very, very naughty boy” and the headless mannequins representing his appreciation of the guillotine left the crowds in fits of laughter.
The conversation quickly turned to more serious issues such as race and patriarchal dominance. Shonibare noted how his film “Addio del Passato” is from Fanny’s perspective because he thinks patriarchy has had its fair chance of being represented.
When asked if he views his work as “historically revisionist,” Shonibare said that he likes to be “complicit” in his art and that he disagrees with removing history that makes one uncomfortable.
“The world is often binary and I don’t submit to that. That is complicity for me,” he said to the crowd. “When I went to Buckingham Palace, I liked being there.”
He further discussed specific elements of his work such as the intentional loops in his films, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews’ stageless and headless representation and the periodical satire in his Fake Death Pictures series.
Referring to one Fake Death Picture titled “The Suicide,” he stressed the importance of not taking oneself too seriously. He also noted that his double parody of Leonardo Alenza’s “Satire of the Romantic Suicide” mocked himself.
“Illuminating Admiral Nelson’s ethical failure in the most poignant of ways, Mr. Shonibare points to the moral turpitude of a culture that would celebrate a man whose personal behavior was so debased,” Meyers said.
In an interview with the News, Droth said the idea of exhibiting Shonibare’s work grew organically during the period of YCBA’s closure, stemming from the museum’s need to explore more works in the 21st century. She said that while the YCBA initially faced challenges incorporating Shonibare’s work into the museum, much of it featured themes prevalent in British art, especially in maritime paintings.
The YCBA screens Shonibare’s films at 2:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and 11 a.m. on Fridays in the Lecture Hall. The exhibition itself will be on view through Dec. 11.