On the way up to Edinburgh we stopped off at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park for a break so that ESP could wander round to see the Henry Moores among grazing sheep. And even they are cultured here – daubed with (smudged) words like “sculpture” and “joy” rather than numbers. 🙂
There were other attractions too. James Turrell’s Deer Shelter Skyspace is a wonderfully tranquil conversion of an 18th-century deer shelter where you just sit and gaze at the sky through a rectangular hole in the roof. It’s a mesmerising space.
Then there’s Roger Hiorns’ Seizure, the former Southwark council flat covered in sparkling blue copper sulphate crystals – beautifully eerie.
But for me the highlight was Fabric-ation, an exhibition of work by Yinka Shonibare MBE. As the name suggests, fabric is the star of this exhibition – in this case the gloriously patterned wax-resist batik cloth associated with Africa but originating in Indonesia.
Although he was born in London, Shonibare moved to Nigeria when he was three and returned to the UK to study art. According to the exhibition guide, he first became award of the fabric in Brixton Market after a tutor challenged him to “deal” with his African heritage.
You may remember Nelson’s Ship in Bottle that occupied the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square in 2010. In this exhibition the maquette for the ship is on display, and Shonibare continues to explore his fascination with Nelson, his Fake Death Pictures featuring the admiral in recreated death scenes from famous paintings – but dressed in African fabrics. Headless figures firing cannonballs (also made from fabric) are similarly clad.
His work moves from these comments on colonialism and class to other serious issues such as climate change, oil and conflict, and inequalities in global food production – a headless winged Food Faerie could represent mangoes being flown from Africa to Europe – or, in reverse, helicopters providing food aid during famine in Africa.
Fox-headed humans brandishing 9mm handguns and BlackBerry phones are Revolution Kids, representing how social media brought people together during the London riots and the Arab Spring.
And the Alien pieces are a playful exploration of the nature of racial prejudice, the fear of the unfamiliar who do not look like us or dress like us.
In his film Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball), based on the life and assassination of the Swedish King Gustav III in 1792, the opulence of the costumes and masks is gorgeous. I could only sit there gaping open mouthed at the exuberance and richness of 18th-century costume and masks in African fabrics.
And ultimately this is the main theme underlying much of the exhibition: how our expectations are turned upside down by changing visual signifiers such as clothing. When you think of space exploration you think of NASA and the West – what would you think if you saw an astronaut wearing African fabric?
Outside, Shonibare’s six-metre-high Wind Sculptures challenge other expectations – although they look like fabric billowing in the wind, they are made of painted fibreglass. Beautiful!
Fabric-ation runs at the Yorkshire Sculpture Gallery until 1 September.