Yinka Shonibare MBE has a new public sculpture on view in The Doris C. Freedman Plaza at the southeast entrance to Central Park, organized by the Public Art Fund (through Oct. 14). Called Wind Sculpture (SG) I, it represents a new direction in Shonibare’s recent series of public sculptures — the “SG” in the title is for the second generation in the series — that achieve the artistic and technological marvel of visualizing something as intangible as wind. In many contexts, this would be more than enough for the installation to be a triumph, an elegant and evocative formalist exercise. However, from this artist at this location during this moment in world history, a sculptural homage to the wind is a bewildering disappointment, an acceptance of empire, whereas the artist’s previous work has been tightly focused on postcolonial provocation.
The British-Nigerian artist is best-known for his use of brightly patterned fabrics, so-called African textiles, which, Shonibare is quick to explain, productively undermine old-fashioned notions of authenticity. These batik prints are popular in West Africa and have come to be an identifiable marker of “Africanness,” but their origins highlight the messiness of colonialism. Inspired in the 19th century by handmade Indonesian batiks, the Dutch (who had colonial holdings in Indonesia) and later the British started making these textiles industrially. Indonesians rejected the ersatz designs, so the British Empire introduced the patterns to their colonies in Africa, where they took off and became linked to some West African identities. Since the 1990s, Shonibare has used these textiles extensively to explore — both playfully and incisively — the history of colonial society and power dynamics. Most often, he has created sculptures and installations of headless mannequins dressed in Victorian suits and dresses, but made out of these riotously colorful fabrics. The wind sculpture in Central Park is made of cast fiberglass rather than fabric, but the painted surface carefully mimics an African textile pattern.
The juxtaposition of stuffy Victorian fashions (and behaviors) with “African” textiles has proven quite effective in Shonibare’s work — in his Scramble for Africa, for example, from 2003. He based the sculpture on a historical conference among the major European powers that met in Berlin in 1884 to divide up colonial control of the African continent. These colonies lasted well into the 1960s in some cases, with the legacy and consequences — for Africa, there have been shockingly few European consequences — lasting even longer.
In the sculpture, 14 figures sit around a table decorated with a map of Africa. Their poses clearly show heated debate, despite none of them having a head — potentially a reference to the guillotines that the colonizers seem to be asking for, or perhaps a sly inversion of the idea that Africans are faceless masses rather than individuals, an idea that helped to justify empire and slavery. Shonibare gave these mannequins of white-supremacist diplomats and politicians brown skin and replaced what would have been severe black suits with loud, busy patterns that read as African but, of course, demonstrate yet another level of colonial interaction. Shonibare famously refers to himself as a “postcolonial hybrid,” and this sculpture teases out some complicated and important issues.
Shonibare and some of the institutions that own or display the wind sculptures that he has been making since 2013 have talked about these public artworks as engaging similar issues. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art has a related Shonibare wind sculpture permanently installed in front of its entrance. The museum’s website spells out some of the themes:
…[It] evokes the sails of ships that have crossed the Atlantic and other oceans, connecting nations through the exchange of ideas, products and people. In its form, it captures histories that can be inspiring or brutal, but always complex. It suggests that the opening of the seas led not only to the slave trade and colonization, but also to the dynamic contributions of Africans and African heritage worldwide.
Indeed, the artist himself told Jessica Holmes at Hyperallergic about the political dimensions of the current Public Art Fund installation in similar terms:
I also see movement as a metaphor for a number of things — migration, travel, independence. And also, it’s a good device for making a work kind of dynamic and animated. […] The fabric holds the impression of wind, which gives it the dynamic movement it has, the form, but also that this is actually about multicultural America.
I will grant that the wind sculptures, unlike Scramble for Africa and others of Shonibare’s more pointedly critical works, embrace the possibility of honoring the positive aspects of global migration, and I appreciate the value in that. However, I can’t get past the spectacle of an incisively political artist who, after taking a serious look at the histories and present legacies of European colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade and the plight of desperate refugees, finds that the most important element to represent — in a high-profile public sculpture that happens to be in view of Trump Tower — is the wind that powered the ships. That seems … insufficient.
Certainly, in the world, bad things happen. But to say that is importantly different from acknowledging that specific, identifiable people or cultures or ideologies do bad things to other people or cultures or ideologies. In the era of Brexit and President Trump, invoking global migration around an abstracted representation of wind hinders collective understanding of a very dire situation. The wind was not the political power behind centuries of slavery and imperialism; the wind is responsible neither for creating refugees nor for callously turning them away from, in at least some cases, the countries with the dirtiest hands when it comes to driving people from their homes in the first place. It’s not as if Shonibare doesn’t know what he’s doing: he knows these histories better than most and he has engaged deeply with them through his work and his identity. His previous public artworks have been much more satisfyingly critical. In celebration of the reopening of the renovated Tate Britain in 2001, Shonibare dressed the iconic allegorical figure of Britannia on the portico in his African textile patterns. Divya Tolia-Kelly and Andy Morris wrote about the project for Third Text (behind the Taylor and Francis paywall):
The significance of the Britannia figure for the Tate can be linked not only to Victorian notions of nationhood and empire but, more specifically, to the creation of Henry Tate’s wealth through the sugar trade. [… W]hat is significant about this work for the gallery is the way that it opens up a critique, not just of the histories and origins of nationhood but of the gallery itself […] that has historically defined itself through fixed and stable notions of nationhood.
Shonibare’s inspiration for the wind sculptures comes directly from another of his previous public installations, Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, from 2010, part of a series of big-name, temporary projects for the fourth plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square. The artist built a scale-model of the HMS Victory in a huge bottle, all 37 of the warship’s sails reconceived in more of his batik patterns, precursors to the wind sculptures. The difference between the literalness of the real ship’s imperial history, as well as the specificity of Lord Nelson’s powerful advocacy against the abolition of slavery, and the adapted, formalist, decontextualized billowing sheets in the wind sculptures, gets at the heart of my critique of the sculpture in Central Park. It’s just too gentle, too vague, too passive.
The Smithsonian talks about the transatlantic slave trade and the artist talks about “multicultural America,” but those themes are not obvious in the sculpture. Instead, the wind sculptures are beautiful and glamorous — but glamour often obscures political analysis and historical criticality. Wind Sculpture (SG) I stands just steps from the William Tecumseh Sherman Monument in Grand Army Plaza. The heroic memorial features an equestrian statue by Augustus Saint-Gaudens of the Civil War general, fan and practitioner of “total war” (today we’d call that “war crimes”) and one of the primary military figures responsible for the Native American genocide during the second half of the 19th century; he is attended by an allegorical figure of Victory. By analogy, the wind sculptures communicate as if the Sherman Monument were simply a large stylized sculpture of a horse, but still meant to memorialize the general, the Civil War and the Indian Wars.
Technically, the sculpture about the wind is, in fact, poetic; and it does communicate, more or less, all of the issues Shonibare raises, but it has no visceral or emotional appeal to righteousness — or to the mocking of the foibles of the powerful — which the best of Shonibare’s work does. Which most of Shonibare’s work does. I find the artist’s bloodlessness at this moment in geopolitical history a fatal flaw; it’s not just a missed opportunity, but a surprisingly pulled punch. This is a disappointing new direction for a brilliant artist, and I hope he rediscovers his more direct, more biting — and, yes, more literal — idiom quickly.