Yinka Shonibare: Addio del Passato at James Cohan Gallery

Currently on view through March 24th at James Cohan Gallery in Chelsea, is the new Yinka Shonibare exhibition: Addio del Passato (So closes my sad story).  A British artist of African ethnicity, who spent his childhood divided between the cosmopolitan cities of London and Lagos, Shonibare has long professed to be inspired by questions surrounding cultural authenticity, and this idea features prominently within all of his work.  His pieces range in scale, material, and process; yet, they are all immediately recognizable through the unified threads of his signature use of Dutch wax printed textiles and his critical juxtaposition of these fabrics into the art historical narrative.  Whether via sculpture, film, photography, or painting, clothing is a vital element of identity in much of Shonibare’s art; each article of dress is imbued with key signifiers that relay crucial artistic information.  Additionally, his use of printed textiles, commonly associated with West Africa, allude to the artist’s own ambiguous ethnic origins and his examination of cultural identity and authenticity in today’s global world.

This exhibition continues the artist’s engagement with a playful reconstruction of the life of the famous British officer Lord Nelson, a notable hero from the Napoleonic Wars.  In 2010 the artist installed a bottle ship “replica” of Nelson’s vessel Victory, in Trafalgar Square in London, and Addio del Pasato resumes this trajectory with a sort of  historical re-imagination of Nelson’s life, illustrated through a series of five C-print photographs dubbed “fake death pictures”, which are accompanied by a short film and several glass vitrines that display costumes and fetish contraptions that include items such as an Anti-hysteria device.

In his work, Shonibare both literally and metaphorically re-colors scenes from history.  By beginning within the western-centric art historical framework that often portrays scenes of elite privilege and inserting strongly symbolic textiles and actors of color into the equation, the racial codes associated with European culture are subverted, and the dominant code of class becomes obscured.  This subversion of codes asks the viewer to question the meanings and history that these context-specific images reference.  Addio del Pasato draws from the paintings: The Suicide by Leonardo Alenza y Nieto, 1839; Edouard Manet’s The Suicide, 1877; The Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis, 1856; François-Guillaume Ménageot’s, Death of Leonardo da Vinci, 1781; and Bartolomé Carducho’s Death of St. Francis from 1593.

The two costumes displayed in the gallery include the coat that features prominently throughout the series of Fake death photos and the dress worn by the actress in the short film for the exhibition.  Exhibiting the costumes in this way, as artifacts of the artistic process, has become popular within contemporary art, a method commonly employed by artists such as Matthew Barney or John Miserendino.  Yet, fusing contemporary considerations with past traditions is in many ways the essence of Shonibare’s work.  Several of his photographs in the show mix chronology just as unabashedly as they fuse cultures.

Leonardo Alenza y Nieto’s, The Suicide, 1839, paired alongside the re-interpreted Yinka Shonibare Fake Death photo.

The central figure in all of these works, a stand-in for Lord Nelson, is dressed the same throughout the series of photographs.  While the reference pieces for the artist span a vast range of time from c.1593-1877, the majority of these pieces are from the 19th century.  In some photographs the incongruity of the dress and time period feels less obvious, but in others, such as the Fake death photo after Manet’s, The Suicide, multiple aspects of the re-interpretation of this impressionist work have been choreographed to convey different messages.

Overlooking the intentions of the dutch wax-printed textiles, Shonibare dresses his figure in a loose interpretation of men’s 18th century dress with breeches, brightly colored stockings, jacket, vest, and powdered wig.  The modernity of the 19th century shirt and pants worn by Manet’s figure is also rejected through Shonibare’s insertion of a heavily-fringed voided velvet throw across the bed, and an oriental carpet across the floor

While the enduring popularity of oriental carpets make them a somewhat timeless icon, Shonibare uses a small pattern Holbein rug.  The artist Hans Holbein portrayed this style of carpet so often during the 16th century that the rug was eventually named after him.  The price of these carpets has also endured along with their popularity, and their association with luxury remains unchanged.

Even the painting that hangs on the wall has been reinterpreted, featuring a woman in opulent 18th century dress.  Although her head is absent (perhaps a continuation from his earlier works with beheaded mannequins in reference to the French Revolution), the extravagant engageantes of her dress fill the frame.

Behind a dark curtain the gallery space holds a viewing room for the film.  In the feature, a beautiful actress wearing a re-interpreted chemise a la reine or robe de gaulle and a powdered wig, roams through the opulent interior and gardens of a mansion.  She sings an aria from Verdi’s La Traviata, wandering around forlornly with a fan clutched in her hand playing the role of Francis Nisbet, the abandoned wife of Lord Nelson.  Scenes of rippling water and wine pouring into crystal goblets, are interjected between her wanderings and shots of the photographs featured in the exhibition.  These images of the Fake death photos have the feel of a frozen tableaux-vivant, subtle motions occur such as the slow drop of a hand, or scraps of paper fluttering across the floor, moved by an invisible breeze.  The mournfulness of the music is overwhelming, yet, the theatricality of Shonibare’s work never completely allows the dark nature of the exhibition themes to detract from the underlying humor that is inherent in all of his work.

Part of this humor or irony stems from his devotion to using Dutch wax printed textiles.  The wax prints used in Shonibare’s work, and commonly found in Africa, were produced by the Dutch initially as a mass produced alternative to Indonesian batik fabrics.  When these textiles failed to sell in Indonesia, they were later sold to the Africans where they became exceedingly popular, and which they are now commonly associated with today.  This use of a material, which is not authentic to any particular society, references the ambiguity of culture in a globalized world.   Shonibare purchases these textiles exclusively through the Brixton market in England, from a vendor that he trusts to supply him with “authentic” Dutch wax prints, and not potentially African versions.

These textiles feature in all of Shonibare’s pieces in the exhibition.  Even the front room which contains a pair of fetish devices alongside a pair of boots, contains scraps of fabric lining the straps of the “codpiece”/ anti-masturbation device, and covers the studded phallus of the mechanized Anti-hysteria deviceWhitehot magazine features a recent interview with the artist in which he discusses how he added this portion of the exhibition to lighten things:

“That part of the show is my adding wit to that. The show is already very dark, but there’s a degree of humor I wanted to add. They’re also about sexual repression, as well. You’ve got the “hysteria machine”, which is basically a vibrating dildo, if you’d like. It’s a fetishistic sexual thing, but could also be about power relations: when women were deemed to be “mentally ill”, they felt that that kind of  “masturbation machine” would release the tension. The object mechanically moves and whistles. It is quite funny, and I’ve got some fetishistic boots, as well. Also, the “anti-masturbation” codpiece. Sexuality can be used as a form of power over people. There’s a serious and playful side, slightly whimsical side, to the exhibition. It’s necessary since I feel the show is quite dark, it needed some sort of release.” 1

Addio del Passato is on view through March 24th.  For more info please see the gallery website.

1- Mason, Shana Beth, “Yinka Shonibare MBE the Whitehot Interview,” Whitehot Magazine, February


1– Yinka Shonibare Fake death photo after The Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis, 1856

2– Installation shot

3- Yinka Shonibare Fake death photo after the Death of St. Francis by Bartolomé Carducho, 1593.

4 & 5- Installation shots

6 & 7 – The Suicide by Leonardo Alenza y Nieto, 1839; Fake death photo by Yinka Shonibare

8- Yinka Shonibare Fake death photo after The Suicide by Edouard Manet, 1877

9- The Suicide by Edouard Manet, 1877

10– Detail

11 & 12- Film stills

13 & 14- Installation shots

15- Detail

16 & 17- Installation shots

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  • edgertor March 19, 2012 03.03 pm

    “Shonibare purchases these textiles exclusively through the Brixton market in England, from a vendor that he trusts to supply him with “authentic” Dutch wax prints, and not potentially African versions.”

    why doesn’t he just buy them direct from Vlisco? are there any OTHER dutch wax producers left in the Netherlands?


  • Mellissa March 19, 2012 04.08 pm

    Thanks for your comment. Although I’m afraid I can’t answer your question about the contemporary market for Dutch wax prints–nor can I guarantee that at this point in his career, the artist didn’t alleviate the middleman–several early articles and interviews with Shonibare stress that he relied on the same vendor to purchase these textiles that are so crucial to his work. The significance of this is that he is interested in acquiring fabrics only with this somewhat misleading provenance, and that origin and cultural codes are more important to the artist than more practical concerns like cost. Aesthetics, also clearly play an important role in his choice of textiles, but origin seems to trump even this consideration somewhat.

    There’s a really great interview with the artist on the crossing borders website in which he discusses how he becomes interested in these ideas related to cultural authenticity. It is available to watch online here:



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