At Driehaus Museum, Yinka Shonibare Fabricates Post-Colonial Identity

The artist takes over a lavish Chicago mansion, for a contemporary twist on Gilded Age excess.

Yinka Shonibare CBE in his London studio. Photo: Wig Worland.

A Tale of Today: Yinka Shonibare CBE” at Chicago’s Driehaus Museum until Sept. 29, is more an intervention than an installation. With an insouciant flair, the British-Nigerian artist’s mannequins (wearing faux-Victorian costumes in wax-print “African” fabrics) insert themselves in the period rooms of this ornate Gilded Age mansion. Their intrusion into the opulent interiors animates the mansion, transforming it into a theatrical stage set for Shonibare’s conceptual art. The incongruous juxtaposition of flouncing fops in a posh setting raises vexing questions about social, gender and economic inequities in our second Gilded Age. The exhibition marks the Driehaus’ shift towards an egalitarian reinterpretation of the lavish house museum. It’s a shot across the bow of the ship of Empire, a move to address relevant social issues and — in a venue associated with ultra-wealth and elitism — to expand the audience.

“Museums are obligated to more accurately reflect the communities of which we’re a part,” Richard Townsend, executive director of the Drieshaus Museum, told me in a recent interview. “That means talking about social, economic and racial disparities” — themes that Shonibare addresses in his visually seductive, politically subversive art. (They are themes he addresses frequently, but not always, as Beck Feibelman previously argued on the CFR.)

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“Child on Unicycle” (2005), installed at the top of the staircase in the Driehaus Museum.

The shift is a game-changer for the Driehaus, named for Chicago financier and philanthropist Richard H. Driehaus, whose collection of late-19th- and early-20th-century decorative art adorns the mansion. When the building housed an art gallery years ago, Driehaus, an avid historic preservationist, asked his interior decorator to look at a bust of Lincoln for sale. “Richard, don’t buy the bust,” the decorator urged. “Buy the building.” In 2003, Driehaus did just that, hiring 150 craftsmen to restore the 24,000-square-foot, three-story building, known as the Marble Mansion when built in 1883, then the largest private residence in Chicago.

Its original owner, bank president Samuel M. Nickerson, who’d lost a mansion in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, created Chicago’s first fireproof dwelling — without plaster walls, but loaded with 17 types of marble panels. Carved wood wainscoting bristles with leafy floral designs and cherubs. Outside, an 18-month laser treatment blasted soot off the blackened sandstone façade to restore its fabled grandeur.

No longer is the building known as the Black Widow. Now it’s a treasure trove of decorative art, the type of museum generally described as a “gem.” But how to entice viewers not enamored of Downton Abbey, who don’t care to peek at the lifestyle of the robber-baron one-percenters of yesteryear? No museum wants to receive a “one and done” ranking in Trip Advisor.

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Hedge-fund billionaire Richard Driehaus is an unlikely champion of contemporary art. Not only has he collected Belle Époque objects by Louis Comfort Tiffany, the Herter Brothers and Emile Gallé since the 1970s, but his foundation sponsors a $200,000 Driehaus Prize awarded to an architect whose work embodies classical and traditional qualities. He also collects vintage automobiles. A modernist, he’s not. His restored Georgian estate on the shore of Lake Geneva in Wisconsin is a showplace of over-the-top elegance. For his 65th birthday, he hosted a gathering of 1,000 guests at a circus-themed party. Driehaus made a splashy entrance in a ringmaster’s costume astride an elephant.

“Diary of a Victorian Dandy” (one of five chromogenic prints in series), 1998. Courtesy of James Cohan New York.

Perhaps it’s this showman’s flair that sparks the new direction of the museum, open to the public since 2008. As Driehaus says in his introduction to An American Palace: Chicago’s Samuel M. Nickerson House, the museum “aims to embrace new audiences. It seeks to be a community gathering place, a place for enjoyment and a place to think and grow.” A big tent, so to speak, welcoming the masses. And the way to attract younger, more diverse viewers is through contemporary art.

“A Tale of Today: New Artists at the Driehaus” is a three-year program of exhibitions by living artists who have been invited to populate the museum with site-specific work. So far, a 2021 exhibition by Mark Dion has been announced, but the intention is to showcase artists of color like Nate Young, part of a 2020 exhibition to be called “Chicago Voices.” In addition, the museum has hired as curatorial fellow Kekeli Sumah, an architectural historian from Ghana studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, to lend his perspective. Four emerging Chicago artists of color will also participate in the “Art of Our Time” initiative, leading educational programs and creating art works displayed (and for sale) in the museum.

Shonibare is the perfect, multimedia, unabashedly decorative artist to kick open the museum’s doors. His cinematic displays are a riot of color and pattern, in sync with the lavishly furnished rooms. His Child on a Unicycle (2005), poised vertiginously at the top of a palatial staircase, looks like a circus performer, arms raised in precarious balance. The sculpture is exuberant, almost shouting “Look at me!” Yet it raises issues of social and physical mobility, a fraught subject for the artist, partially paralyzed by a spinal cord inflammation called transverse myelitis.

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And what’s the story behind the figure’s colorful costume? A signature element of Shonibare’s work is a Dutch-wax fabric with which he clothes his mannequins. Inspired by Javanese designs, made in Holland, sold in London and imported in West Africa, the textiles became identified with African identity in the 1950s and ‘60s, a period of decolonization. Shonibare, born in London, raised in Lagos, Nigeria, from the age of three before returning to London to study art, is just as much a hybrid as the cloth. He spoke English at school and Yoruba at home, where he wore robes made of the “indigenous” fabric.

“Big Boy” (2002).

By clothing his mannequins in styles worn by the Victorian upper class, cut from cloth associated with African liberation, Shonibare shows the interweaving of colonial and imperial threads. This “miscegenation” of elements implies that colonial exploitation furnished Victorian prosperity.

The initials “CBE,” which Shonibare appends to his name, are also an ironic mashup of royal privilege and commoner reality. Awarded in 2019 (he was a lower-caste MBE when first honored in 2004), the honorific conferred by Queen Elizabeth II stands for Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Shonibare himself is a product of both England and Africa, thus uniquely qualified to criticize the system — or, as he calls himself, “the outsider within.”

His series of photographs exposes the falsehoods and exclusions in historical narratives. Shonibare casts himself as the star of a five-part narrative sequence Diary of a Victorian Dandy (1998). Modeled on William Hogarth’s 1733 A Rake’s Progress (paintings that illustrate a gentleman’s dissolution), Shonibare invites our disbelief as we watch his morning-to-evening progress (decline?). First fawned over by white maids as he wakes up in bed, later idolized as the cynosure of every scene in which he’s the lone Black face consorting with aristocratic whites, he ends up slumped in debauchery. Recasting Old Masters and Western art history, he highlights historical omission by inserting a black face in narratives where he would have been absent.

The staged scenes, shot in a stately home, employ actors, period costumes and elaborate props. The large-scale color prints framed in gold are both beautiful and bizarre. Shonibare has said his work is “about raising questions rather than answering them.”

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“Dorian Gray” (one of 11 black-and-white prints and one chromogenic print), 2001. Courtesy of James Cohan New York.

The 12-part photo series Dorian Gray (2001) explores Oscar Wilde’s 1891 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, as translated into a 1945 film noir movie. As the lead character, Shonibare transits from a dapper, tuxedo-clad protagonist to a cadaver whose mottled face bears the marks of inner corruption. Charting the metamorphosis of the figure from virile and vigorous to degenerate and depraved suggests the artist’s struggles with disability and looming mortality.

The tour-de-force spectacle of the show is Party Time: Re-Imagine America (2008/9), installed in the sumptuous, oak-walled dining room of the mansion. Eight figures are frozen in poses of gluttony and excess, sloshing wine and cavorting boorishly while a servant bears a peacock on a silver platter. The headless nature of the mannequins implies brainless hedonism, heedless ignorance of historical reckoning and the violent decapitation of French aristocrats under the guillotine blade. It also allows identification with the ambiguous figures, whose skin is typically coffee-colored.

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“Party Time: Re-Imagine America” (2008/9), installed in the dining room of the Driehaus Museum.

Reveling in this flamboyant feast of pattern and color, the viewer enjoys Shonibare’s sly wit. Townsend, the Driehaus director, calls the approach “sugar-coating the pill of knowledge,” adding: “He seduces you first, then hits you between the eyes.” In a 2004 interview, Shonibare explained, “I am here to protest, but I am going to do it as a gentleman.”

The seven-foot-tall Big Boy (2002) struts beneath a 25-foot-high stained glass dome, stepping out proudly in a Dutch-wax costume with a ruffled train. Inspired by RuPaul’s gender fluidity, the proud sculpture is a challenge to marginalized status and invisibility, whether owing to gender, racial or class bias. “I don’t see a difference between discriminating against a gay person, a transgender person or a woman or a black person,” Shonibare says in a videotaped interview. “Oppression is oppression.”

The artist’s works attack social injustice indirectly, using beauty as a subtle weapon, an ingratiating Trojan horse. “Art,” Shonibare says, “is for the soul and the spirit; it is not a hammer.” Unlike many artists today who create fierce, socially engaged art, Shonibare downplays the possibility that his satirical art might achieve positive change. “Artists can make people think and have a conversation,” he says, noting that voting and activism are more effective than anything he creates in his studio.

Now celebrated and much in demand, this bicultural artist is pleased that other Black artists are getting overdue attention in the current spate of “canon correction” under way at museums. Yet, as someone who takes the broad course of human and art history as his purview, Shonibare admits, “We’ve got a long way to go, so I think that actually we’re only just getting started.”