Thursday, January 14, 2010

Review: Yinka Shonibare: Mother and Father Worked Hard So I Can Play @ St. Louis Art Museum

About two weeks ago, on the way to the Italics exhibition at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art (closes Valentine's to come), we stopped by the St. Louis Art Museum to see the new Yinka Shonibare exhibition Mother and Father Worked Hard So I Can Play (closes March 14).

Installed in their lower level period rooms, we are faced with the same old, same old from Shonibare, who is my nominee for the art world's most heralded one note band. At best, what we are faced with is a slightly clever variation on a theme. And when I say slightly, I mean marginally.

Shonibare has been celebrated, quite rightfully, as one of the more topically engaging artists of the 1990s, emerging from the cauldron of Goldsmith's in London with his own unique tangle of revealing, haunting, and at times absurdist post-colonial identity politics.

In the 1990s, such a brew was magically successful, drawing our attention to so many of those considerations we hadn't considered before and still need to consider more.

This deep into the new millennium, however, Shonibare's go-to methods are beginning to have the flavor of six month old tortilla chips. Frankly, the only marked novelty about these new works is in their poses, which already change from work to work, and their installation in the period rooms of the St. Louis Art Museum, which I guess is supposed to (and actually does, but in a rather frustrating and wandering way) perpetuate a reenactment of the original colonial exploration in search of culturally or fiscally valuable goods (by which we used to mean natural resources and here mean art).

The problem is that we already know the rest. We have for nearly two decades.

We already know Shonibare is the England-born child of Nigerian parents, himself a sort of walking embodiment of our current purported post-colonial and post-national existence.

We already know the batiks are a kind of Post-Pattern and Decoration signifier of the deceptive and forced importation of European garmentry (and culture) into African culture, and the subsequent absorption of said garments to the point of an inauthentic African authenticity.

We already know that the decapitation (non- or anti-capitation, perhaps) of the mannequins resists relational humanity. It is, after all, hard to relate to someone with no head.

We already know that this is, perhaps, also a kind of mantian retribution, in the name of all colonized peoples.

The disturbing reality of all of this is that Shonibare's art has been riding this wave for such a long time, with so little visible modulation or nuancing of what cud we've already been chewing.

And, at the risk of placing blame where it does not belong, the writers of the texts affiliated with the exhibition seem to be rather thrilled with regurgitating the same four or five catch phrases that have followed Shonibare throughout his career and have served as a kind of enabler to our post-colonial self-satisfaction.

You see, if we have an artist that fits the bill, and we support that artist, somehow our historical complicity in colonialism, or in its aftermath, is somehow alleviated. The jury is still out on this one. At least for me. Primarily because I don't quite understand how such an moral-intellectual jump can be made, if it can be made at all.

Which brings me to a rather peripheral concern. Peripheral to the art, at least. I'm confused as to the hows and whys of Yinka Shonibare MBE. I, myself, have never been afforded such an honor as being made a Member of the Order of the British Empire. I'm generally more of an Order of the Phoenix guy to begin with. Anyway...

While, realistically, I must recognize that this is an honorific title, one given to the culturally significant and the Britishly excellent, it still seems rather tricky given all of the post-colonialism we keep rehashing in regards to the work. I have never been an advocate of merging the artist and the work, or expecting that one is causal to the other by necessity. But, since we keep dredging up the spectres of colonialism--and I'll eat my hat if the work doesn't make that its primary concern--is there not a kind of historically problematic recolonialization happening here? Yes, Shonibare is a British citizen--born, raised, and educated--so the MBE is certainly appropriate and, more certainly, deserved for his contributions to British (and global) art.

But, in our post-colonial post-national world of millenial identity politricks, does this suffix not perpetuate the importance of recognition by a once dominant colonial hegemon, within the shadows of what is left of that same hegemon, which, of course, still is a hegemon, only of a different variety? Am I being fussy? Am I, instead, supposed to comfort myself with some kind of intellectual gymnastics wherein this is actually a kind of reappropriation of nomenclature, a subversion of the once uniformly British membership of the Order of the British Empire?

Order of the British Empire? (Natural) Order of the British Empire?

It all sits very oddly with me, to say nothing of the fact that I'm still rather bored by what looks like an artist piping us all out of Hamelin with the same batik-printed, headless tune.

Mother and Father Worked Hard So I Can Play.

Maybe we shouldn't concern ourselves with play. Or let Mother and Father's sacrifice be in its service.

Back to work.

I miss the photographs. But I take comfort in knowing that the mannequins are sharing time with more of the flat stuff these days.