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'Suspended States': Yinka Shonibare challenges colonial narratives in moving London exhibition

Fibreglass sculptures, hand-painted by British artist Yinka Shonibare
Fibreglass sculptures, hand-painted by British artist Yinka Shonibare Copyright Credit: Stephen White & Co / Yinka Shonibare CBE
Copyright Credit: Stephen White & Co / Yinka Shonibare CBE
By Theo FarrantAP
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Historic colonial statues should not be destroyed, but reimagined, according to British artist Yinka Shonibare. A new solo exhibition of his work tackling Britain’s imperialist past has opened in London.

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The familiar face of Winston Churchill takes on a new hue in a vibrant exhibition recently unveiled at the Serpentine Gallery, located in London's Hyde Park. 

In a bold move to confront the complexities of history, artist Yinka Shonibare breathes fresh life into the former-British Prime minister and other historical figures like Queen Victoria and Herbert Kitchener, challenging viewers to reconsider their legacies.

Shonibare's work is a response to the contentious debate surrounding statues of figures linked to slavery, colonialism, and racial oppression. 

Instead of advocating for their removal, Shonibare chooses to reinterpret them, infusing traditional forms with his signature hand-painted Batik patterns, a nod to his Nigerian heritage. His intention? To preserve history while inviting critical reflection and dialogue.

Artist Yinka Shonibare's fibreglass sculpture of Winston Churchill is showcased at the Suspended States exhibition at Serpentine South in London, 11 April 2024.
Artist Yinka Shonibare's fibreglass sculpture of Winston Churchill is showcased at the Suspended States exhibition at Serpentine South in London, 11 April 2024.Credit: Frank Augstein/AP

"People are talking about the idea of actually knocking statues down because of the colonial history of those figures. And I felt that actually the best approach is not to actually knock them down, in the same way that you wouldn't go into a library and start burning the books you didn't like, you know?” he says.

“So I thought that it's actually better to preserve history and for people to actually understand what people did, what Queen Victoria did, what Churchill did. And my approach really is to actually improve them, to make them more beautiful."

Navigating the nuances of historical figures

A visitor looks at sculptures made of fibreglass and handpainted by Artist Yinka Shonibare at Serpentine South in London.
A visitor looks at sculptures made of fibreglass and handpainted by Artist Yinka Shonibare at Serpentine South in London.Credit: Frank Augstein/AP

The new and recent works at the exhibition draw from Shonibare's childhood experiences in Nigeria, exploring the tangled colonial relationships between Africa and Europe, and the nuanced nature of historical figures.

"I think human beings are very complicated. No one is just a villain or no one is just good. And I think that's what's very important about those debates because people are very complex. And also, somebody who lived in the 19th century is not the same as the person living today. And you can't really conflate ideas or the values of the 19th century with our values. We are different people," says Shonibare.

A highlight of the exhibition is "The War Library," a poignant installation housing over 5,000 books chronicling conflicts across continents. There are even volumes on the shelves with no titles at all – symbolising deadly conflicts that have not yet happened, but are inevitable.

"The point of The War Library is actually amnesia, to expose our amnesia, to show that we always repeat the same thing over and over again. And also the importance of the archives, the importance of memory, and to also see that actually, we've had many, many peace treaties and we've tried to resolve a lot of the conflicts, but for some reason we keep going back to the same place," explains Shonibare.

Exhibition view: Yinka Shonibare, Suspended States at Serpentine Galleries
Exhibition view: Yinka Shonibare, Suspended States at Serpentine GalleriesCredit: Serpentine Galleries/Jo Underhill

Visitors will also encounter a somber room containing models of structures that have provided shelter for refugees and displaced people, from churches to schools to the headquarters of Amnesty International. Glowing windows illuminate the darkness, prompting reflection on our collective responsibility towards those in need.

"We must we must endeavour to be more sympathetic and to be more accommodating, because we could actually become refugees if there was a natural disaster," he says.

The ‘Suspended States’ exhibition at London's Serpentine Gallery runs until 1 September 2024.

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