Yinka Shonibare: Magic Ladders

The Barnes Foundation



Yinka Shonibare in his London studio, with sculptures featuring his signature batik cloth. Photo by James Mollison for The Wall Street Journal.


Yinka Shonibare MBE, Scramble for Africa, 2004.


Philadelphia students viewing Yinka Shonibare's, Scramble for Africa, 2004. Photo courtesy of The Barnes Foundation.


Yinka Shonibare MBE, Planets in My Head, Philosophy, 2011. Mannequin, Dutch wax printed cotton, leather and fiberglass, 16 x 16 x 45 inches. Collection of Charlotte and Herbert Wagner, Boston, MA. © The Artist/Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai.

Nigerian-born, London-based Yinka Shonibare's first major Philadelphia exhibition since his artist residency at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in 2004 included 15–20 works of sculpture, photography, painting, and installation, with a focus on themes of education, enlightenment, and opportunity. It also included a new commission, Magic Ladders—the Barnes Foundation's first collaboration with a contemporary artist since Alfred Barnes commissioned Henri Matisse's La Danse II in 1930. Shonibare, whose work offers a provocative exploration of race, slavery, economics, and European and African identities, conceived of this exhibition after researching Barnes' progressive educational practices. Barnes was one of the first American collectors to regard African art as fine art rather than ethnographic curiosity, though his acquisitions were made possible by the imperialist colonization of Africa. Shonibare's sculptures, particularly works like Scramble for Africa (2003), raised inevitable questions about Barnes' practice when seen in this context, and challenged traditional interpretations of the collection from a contemporary point of view.