Tag Archive: britain

  1. YCBA exhibit features Admiral Nelson’s legacy

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    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.

  2. More Than Conversation Pieces

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    Had you ventured into the courtyard of Jonathan Edwards College any time from the 1930s through the 1970s, you might have noticed a still, plaintive figure kneeling somewhere within the environment of grass and concrete and trees. Perhaps you admired the tentative play of sunlight on the black lead in which the sculpture is cast, or attempted to decipher the time told from the bronze sundial which the figure supports on its head. Maybe you whiled away lazy days studying, or lazy nights murmuring with friends under the starless sky, in its company. You might even have, with the sort of youthful irreverence present in every generation, etched your name among the graffiti marring the figure’s strained back.

    It is with a decidedly different — a more constructive — kind of irreverence, I would say, that this unnamed garden statue of an African-born slave has been placed at the center of one of the rooms now occupied by “Figures of Empire,” an exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art that runs from Oct. 1 through Dec. 14. At first glance, the premise of the exhibition seems straightforward enough: It aims to explore, through a diverse array of portraits drawn predominantly from the museum’s collections, the impact of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade on 18th-century Britain.

    However, the core attitude of the exhibition is to look at many of these works in ways that run counter to their creators’ original intentions — hence, the aforementioned “irreverence.” It is rich with examples of dignified portraits and conversation pieces featuring wealthy white members of British society, but our real focus is turned to those figures in the background, servants and slaves of African descent who have been consciously included as subordinate figures but whom the exhibition challenges us to examine as subjects in their own right. This is a project in reconstructing the historical and personal identities of such individuals through artistic analysis, even if efforts to locate them in official or family records have largely proven to be in vain.

    As modern-day viewers, we already naturally feel — I would hope — some degree of discomfort with paintings like these, and as such it is with relative ease that we can adopt the critical eye that the exhibition asks of us. Because of this, it’s tempting to think of ourselves as temporally, physically and emotionally removed from these pieces; after all, it is by virtue of our distance from them that we can even begin to look at them in the way that we do. This illusion is shattered by specific and notable objects within the exhibition that do well to remind us not only of where we are but also of our connections to this seemingly bygone society. As it turns out, the garden statue is believed to have stood on the estate of our very own founding benefactor Elihu Yale, who made his fortune as a governor of the East India Company in Madras. A huge and rarely exhibited group portrait featuring Elihu Yale himself, accompanied, among others, by a slave boy wearing a collar and padlock around his neck, hangs at the start of the exhibition.

    This is only one way in which curators Cyra Levenson, Esther Chadwick and Meredith Gamer engage the viewers in dialogue with the works on display. As Levenson says, the exhibition itself has “emerged from conversation” surrounding “complicated objects” like the ones described above, and it is a conversation they hope not necessarily to resolve, but rather to sustain and explore with their audience. Complicated objects give way to complicated questions, ranging from what constitutes a portrait (see, for example, the challenging “Bust of a Man,” which stands in the center of the second room) to how identity is constructed.

    In order to foster this kind of dialogue among viewers, Levenson, Chadwick and Gamer curate subtle but productive dialogue among the pieces themselves. Within the 18th-century framework of the exhibition is a healthy representation of the ways in which people began to grapple with the moral issues surrounding slavery; in the second room, for example, the painstakingly constructed dignity of the conversation pieces belies the shifts which were beginning to occur during this time, as reflected in the abolitionist pieces on the other side of the room. “Figures of Empire” concludes with examples of Anglo-Africans themselves who used single-figure portraiture to construct their own identities much in the same fashion as their predecessors.

    The exhibition encompasses a wide range of objects in negotiating an understanding of these “figures of empire,” and many of these objects can be challenging, even perplexing. In setting out such a variety of representations, however — traditional, alternative, satirical, empowering — “Figures of Empire” allows us to formulate a less restrictive view of a disenfranchised population. And that is something worth talking about.

    Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Elihu Yale made his fortune from the transatlantic slave trade.