Yinka Shonibare MBE, Magic Ladders I, II, III, 2013. Mannequins, Dutch wax-printed cotton, leather, fiberglass, wooden ladders, paper-covered wooden books, globe heads, steel. Image © 2014 The Barnes Foundation.
Nigerian-born, British artist Yinka Shonibare MBE works within a self-aware web of contradictions. "On the one hand, I want to challenge the establishment, but I also long to be a part of it," he says, regarding his place in the larger art world. His exhibition at the Barnes Foundation, Yinka Shonibare MBE: Magic Ladders, supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, included work that explored the artist's interest in contradictions, as well as larger concepts of cultural identity, authenticity, colonialism, and empire. Judith F. Dolkart, chief curator at the Barnes, saw a connection between Shonibare's outlook and that of founder Albert C. Barnes, who took a greater interest in public art education over traditional exhibitions of his famous collection. "[Barnes was] working within the concepts of what it is to be an American aristocrat but also flouting those conventions at the same time," Dolkart said. "I think that's part of Yinka's enterprise as well, as an artist."
Three pieces newly created for the exhibition, Magic Ladders, constituted the Barnes Foundation's first commission from an artist since Matisse's La Danse in 1930. "Barnes was looking at the most contemporary art of his day," Dolkart explained, "so it's wonderful [...] to bring that kind of innovation into our galleries and to engage with the history of the foundation." Shonibare described the Magic Ladders sculptures as "based on the idea of self-help through knowledge": child-sized mannequins ascend ladders with rungs made from art history books, their globular heads dotted with night sky constellations. The commissioned works spoke to Shonibare and Barnes' shared interest in education and the opportunities it affords. "Barnes was very much a supporter of the idea that you could change your own situation by acquiring knowledge," Shonibare said. "[He] knew that education could emancipate people."
Magic Ladders also included some of Shonibare's most well-known and provocative works, many made in the last 10 years, which explore the Enlightenment era and its philosophies of intellectualism and imperialism. Of his sculptures, Priscilla Frank wrote in The Huffington Post, "His radiant headless mannequins don fantastical garb, in which neon colors form decorative galaxies reminiscent of an African aesthetic." Shonibare's interest in these fabrics dates back to his time in art school, when he visited a London market and first discovered they were manufactured in the Netherlands and exported to Africa. Questions and deconstructions of identity, history, and authenticity have since been strong focal points of his work. In Scramble for Africa (2003), a group of male mannequins, dressed in their exquisitely tailored and colorful, evocative garments, sit around a table and appear to debate with each other over a map of Africa, the work speaking powerfully to the history of colonialism.