How Yinka Shonibare expresses cultural identities through art


Yinka Shonibare (*1962) is an Anglo-Nigerian artist who was born in London. He moved with his family to Lagos, Nigeria, when he was three years old and returned to London at the age of 17 to study art. Shonibare works in a variety of media including sculpture, installation, painting and photography. His art often explores themes of colonialism and post-colonialism, as well as issues of class and race based on the question: "What is authentic in a global world?"


The artist became aware of the issue of hybrid identities when he learned that the supposedly authentic African fabrics he was buying in Brixton, London, were originally batik prints from Indonesia, brought to West Africa by the Dutch in the 17th century. He incorporates these fabrics into his artworks, often in ways that challenge traditional notions of identity and cultural representation. For example, he creates sculptures of historical figures dressed in these fabrics, or installations that explore the complex relationship between Europe and Africa. Overall, Shonibare's art is known for its thought-provoking and sometimes provocative nature, and for its ability to engage audiences on a deeper level. He says of his work: “What you see is not necessarily what you get. So you might actually take time to find out more about something before you then start to make assumptions”.


Photo: Colourful printed fabrics


But Shonibare does not want to alienate his audience by lecturing them. Nor does he believe that as an artist he can single-handedly change the world. Despite the sensitive subjects he tackles, his art is aesthetically pleasing, playful, colourful and often surreally funny. He comments on his art: “The audience should engage with my work. Colour is one way – people then might be more sympathetic to listen to you”. Shonibare has exhibited his work in galleries and museums around the world and has received numerous awards and honours for his contributions to the art world.


Shonibare's sculpture Nelson's Ship in a Bottle (2010) refers to the Battle of Trafalgar, which took place during the Napoleonic Wars in 1805 and resulted in the defeat of the French and Spanish navies. It was one of Britain's greatest naval victories, won by an international crew of marines from various European countries and the rest of the world, including the West Indies, Brazil, India, Jamaica and Canada. By placing the ship in a bottle and using colourful African fabrics for the sails, the artist provides a new context for this historic event.


Another example of Shonibare's art is The British Library, an installation of over 6,000 books covered in Shonibare's signature colourful fabrics. The spines of the books are printed with the names of famous and unknown immigrants who have made significant contributions to British culture and history. There is also an American version of this installation called The American Library.


Photo: Part of Shonibare's installation The British Library


In his 2021 exhibition African Spirits of Modernism at the Stephen Friedman Gallery in London, Shonibare explores the complex issue of identity, describing his own as a "post-colonial hybrid". The collection of hybrid masks was inspired by works in Picasso's collection. Describing the series as "Picasso in reverse", Shonibare explains that "Picasso was interested in appropriating from another culture, and I also appropriate from European ethnic art". According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, cultural appropriation occurs when members of a majority group adopt cultural elements of a minority group in an exploitative, disrespectful, or stereotypical manner.


The aesthetics of African art have been a source of inspiration for some prominent Western artists, including Pablo Picasso. In 1908, Picasso and George Braque began to develop a new style and art movement based on geometric forms, later called Cubism. African tribal cultures were one of its influences, although Picasso never actually credited African art as a source of inspiration. Shonibare acknowledges that there are power dynamics at play and that the dominant culture sometimes misappropriates elements of other cultures, but he refrains from openly criticising Picasso.


Photo: Picasso's painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon inspired by African art


The short animated video Becoming an Artist: Yinka Shonibare for Tate Kids is an introduction to the artist, his roots, influences and work. The video was made by French artist Loup Blaster from Calais, a French town on the English Channel, who works as an audiovisual artist, illustrator, film director and video jockey.



Type of film: Animated short biography

Duration: 3 min.

Target group: Adults from level B1?

Teaching aims:

-Get to know the artist Yinka Shonibare and some of his work

-Reflect about identity and hybrid identity

-Be able to use English for these activities


Using the video


Pre-viewing activity

Show students the pictures of Nelson's ship in a bottle and the British Library. Ask them to describe the artworks. Then tell them that the works are about culture and cultural identities. Ask them to think of some ideas of what these works are about. Then tell them that they are going to watch a video about the artist Yinka Shonibare.


While-viewing activity

Ask students to answer the following questions

Where was Yinka Shonibare born?

Where did he grow up?

What did he study and where?

What does he want to express through his art?

What do you think you can see in the video?


After listening to the video, ask students to pool their answers. Then ask for opinions on the last question. Then play the video with the sound and picture. Ask students:


Did you expect the video to look like this?

Why do you think an animated video was used for the biography?


Then give students more information about Nelson's ship in a bottle and the British and/or American Library. Tell them that much of Shonibare's art is about identity and hybrid identities (a combination of different identities).


Post-viewing activity - Discussing identity

Ask students:

What aspects shape people's identities? For example, what aspects may have shaped Yinka Shonibare's identity? What aspects have shaped your identity?


Picture: Factors by which identity is shaped


Identity refers to a person's individuality and the characteristics that make them unique. It is the sense of self that individuals have and the way in which they perceive themselves in relation to others and the world around them. Our identities are made up of many different aspects, including our beliefs, values, experiences and personal characteristics. For example, a person's identity may be shaped by their family background, cultural traditions, religious beliefs, hobbies, interests and gender. Identities can change and develop over time as a result of new experiences and knowledge. Ultimately, a person's identity is a complex and individualised combination of factors that give them their individual sense of self and determine their social identity, which is the way they are perceived by others.


Some people may experience an identity crisis at some point in their lives. This term refers to a period of confusion and uncertainty about their identity. It is a common experience during adolescence as young people try to find out who they are and where they fit in the world. An identity crisis can be triggered by a major life event, such as moving to a new country or city, a change in relationships, or a personal crisis that leaves a person feeling lost and uncertain about their values and beliefs.


The experience of immigration can also be challenging. According to Social Identity Theory, people derive their social identity by identifying with certain groups and comparing themselves with others. They strive to achieve a positive social identity based on a favourable comparison with other groups. This process can lead to prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination and  can impact social behavior and group dynamics. Immigrants may face discrimination and prejudice and struggle to deal with the complexities of multiple cultural influences. They may also experience a kind of identity crisis due to a sense of disconnection or dislocation from both their original culture and the culture of their new home.


Immigrants to a new country often develop a hybrid identity through the process of adapting to the new culture. They retain elements of their original culture while also adopting aspects of the culture of their new home, which leads to a unique and complex identity that is shaped by both their original culture and new cultural influences. According to an OSCE report, a hybrid identity is more conducive to the promotion of a pluralistic society, in which individuals share universal values of human rights, than 'multiple' and possibly competing identities.


Shonibare's identity has probably been shaped by living in Lagos and London, his family's hybrid culture, his training and work as an artist, his disability, his age and generation...


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