Colin Hambrook and Joe McConnell respond to a talk by Yinka Shonibare at Shape's launch of the Adam Reynolds bursary
The Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary was launched at the Camden Arts Centre in July 2007. The bursary offers disabled or Deaf visual artists a £5,000 award and a year-long artistic residency. In the first year, this will be hosted by Camden Arts Centre, where Adam himself had a residency at a pivotal time in his career. The bursary is in memory of Adam Reynolds, who died in 2005. Adam was a Chairman on Shape's Board of Trustees, a renowned sculptor and an activist for disability equality in the arts.
Yinka Shonibare opened the event with a few of his own memories of Adam from the time when Shonibare worked as an Arts Officer for Shape. He talked with affection of Adam's supportiveness and eloquence, and in particular his passion for artist-run projects, such as the Adam Gallery, which he set up in 1984. It was unique in that it made the brave move to bypass curatorial and commercial precedents and to put the creative process firmly in the hands of the artist. These ideas rubbed off on Shonibare, setting him on the road to increasingly complex and involved collaborations through a range of media that includes sculpture, painting, photography, film and installation.
Although not a member of the Disability Arts movement, Shonibare readily acknowledges physical disability as part of his identity but creates work in which this is just one strand of a far richer weave. “Historically the people who made huge, unbroken modernist paintings were middle-class white American men. I don't have that physique; I can't make that work. So I fragmented it, in a way which made it both physically manageable and emphasizes the political critique”.(Conversation with Nancy Hynes cited in www.findarticles.com).
Shonibare's prolific work embraces a wide range of themes: identity, history, global politics … most often with a wickedly refreshing sense of humour which makes issues raised hit home all the harder. One of his starting points was a reaction to being questioned by college tutors, as to why an African artist should be interested in making work about Perestroika. This led to a whole chain of work questioning what people meant by African and European. He began with the idea of using fabric as a metaphor. Struck by the fact that batik cloth on sale in Brixton was actually manufactured in Holland, he realised that even the origins of the fabric speak of the inequities of global trade. This led the way to Double Dutch (1994) - a series of small paintings using motifs from batik cloth.
In an age when so many of us feel that buying Fairtrade coffee is doing our bit to rebalance global inequalities, much of Shonibare's work highlights the complexity and complicity which connects the materially advanced countries to the so-called third world. The richly patterned batik-based costumes adorning the headless figures in many of Shonibare's installations reference colonial exploitation, both past and present. Traditional motifs are interwoven with Gucci-style prints, in a way that is both entertaining and subversive. Describing his work as "soft politics", the beauty of the objects in themselves becomes part of the challenge to the status quo. Yinka Shonibare and Rachel Gadsden are among the surprisingly small group of disabled artists who have critically engaged with the issues of war in the contemporary world.
His work contains frequent references to English history. His art historical tableaux such as Mr and Mrs Andrews Without Their Heads (after Gainsborough) and The Swing (after Fragonard), re-stage images of the aristocracy. Aside from taking a post-colonial swipe they ask questions about the current state of power relations in the world. Who are the anonymous heads behind big corporations who control so much of our lives and aspirations? Gallantry and Criminal Conversation (2002) and Scramble for Africa (2003) are more literal in their condemnation for the power relationships and global inequality forged by the ruling classes of Europe.
Inspired by A Rake's Progress by Hogarth, Shonibare's Diary of a Dandy consists of a series of photographic tableaux, putting himself in the frame. The work, which was on show on billboards on the London Underground during the early '90s, reflects the saccharine obsession for the costume drama, reflecting an idealised past. At the same time by placing himself as a Black, disabled, British man in the centre of the narrative, he questions the aspiration of wanting to achieve a position of power and affluence in contemporary society.
As he talked through his body of work, he talked occasionally but poignantly about his identity as a disabled man. Dorian Gray (2001) explores issues of disability and dandyism, beautifully illustrating Oscar Wilde's parable about the dangers of a society obsessed with the desire for perfection. Coming from a need to break out of the isolation of being alone in the studio, the work is also about the need to work in collaboration. More subtly it reflects a fear of being corrupted by a society steeped in hypocrisy, and the irony of having been launched as a foremost contemporary British artist by Charles Saatchi, engineer behind the Thatcher phenomenon.
The Adam Reynolds Bursary is unique in its aim to provide an opportunity for artists to develop their ideas and practice without pressure to deliver a particular outcome. The successful artist will be selected from an open submission, on the strength of their work and proposal.