End of Empire: Yinka Shonibare MBE on his new exhibition at Margate's Turner Contemporary

By Mark Sheerin | 27 April 2016

As his new exhibition opens at Turner Contemporary, the artist discusses the EU Referendum, the First World War and adopting a reconciliatory approach

A photo of artist Yinka Shonibare MBE inside a gallery lined with shelves of books
Yinka Shonibare MBE in front of his new work End of Empire (2016), co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW and Turner Contemporary© John Phillips / Getty Images for 14-18 NOW
Centenary commemorations for World War One are rumbling on, in most cases closer to home than the original battles. In Margate they are remembering the Somme which, in 1916, took almost five months to play out and left some 1,000,000 combatants dead or wounded. The town’s celebrated new-build gallery, Turner Contemporary has co-commissioned a piece by Yinka Shonibare MBE, which comments on the balance of power rather than the direct human cost of the offensive. It is called End of Empire and it offers a lesson in geopolitics, rather than an exercise in breastbeating.

Culture24 spoke with the artist via phone from his East London studio. Prior to the unveiling of the new work in Kent, we asked him what visitors might expect. “It’s basically two Victorian men both dressed in Victorian costumes made in African textiles and they’ve got globe heads and the globe heads represent the opposing sides in the First World War,” said the British-Nigerian sculptor. For those who dare forget, these sides comprised a French British alliance and an Austro-Hungarian and German alliance. Fittingly, these two foes are installed on a slow moving seesaw.

“This is really a metaphor for some kind of attempt at reconciliation or compromise because, as you know, the First World War was not just a direct war it was also a kind of proxy war for the colonies, for using colonies to fight the battles so this is really a piece about some possibility of redemption,” says the artist, bringing to light an aspect of history which gets left out of some UK classrooms.

A photo of artist Yinka Shonibare MBE inside a gallery lined with shelves of books
© John Phillips / Getty Images for 14-18 NOW
“Obviously I'm much too young to understand the impact on people who were sent out there,” says the 53-year-old artist. But like most of Shonibare’s work, End of Empire is characterised by extensive reading and research, in which he came to understand the war efforts of people from the Caribbean, his Nigeria of origin and the subjects of the wider British Empire. The finely poised demonstration of historic global politics, comes at an interesting time in the current world order.

When asked about the inevitable background of a referendum on Europe, Shonibare acknowledges the importance of the BREXIT vote. He says, with quite some pessimism, “The European project has collapsed”. The post-colonial artist has spent more time than most thinking about immigration and thinks that, thanks to the refugee crisis, “we’re on the verge of another possible conflict between European nations”.

So in his mind there is little doubt that the displaced peoples and recent conflicts are the direct result of the events of 1916 and beyond. “People did experience racism on the battlefront,” he explains, “and that built resentment because people felt they were very much part of the mother country”. And having once taken up arms for the British, many continued to fight on their own terms: “The First World War was certainly the beginning of the independence movement for a lot of the colonies.”

A photo of artist Yinka Shonibare MBE inside a gallery lined with shelves of books
© John Phillips / Getty Images for 14-18 NOW
In 2004, Shonibare became a Member of the British Empire and has ever since appended his title to his professional name. Considering the awareness he shows for the injustices of empire, I wondered if he ever feels implicated in the worst aspects of British rule. “Absolutely not,” he insists.

“To feel any sort of threat by the legacy of the empire would suggest that it has the same power that it used to have.” He also says, quite reasonably:  “I think the legacy is still here and that can't be denied but part of changing that legacy is to enter those establishment arenas and change them from within.”

The second part to his show in Margate is a large-scale installation called The British Library, which consists of books covered in Shonibare’s trademark African textiles. The spines of each book bear the names of migrants and their descendants, from TS Eliot to Nigel Farage; and with more than 6,000 titles, even Shonibare loses count.  “That piece has become even more important than it was when it was first installed [in Brighton’s HOUSE Festival in 2014] because all of the pictures we’ve been seeing in the media of the child on the beach, face down, dead.”

A photo of artist Yinka Shonibare MBE inside a gallery lined with shelves of books
The British Library (2014), co-commissioned by HOUSE 2014 and Brighton Festival© John Phillips / Getty Images for 14-18 NOW
“Those are very powerful images,” says the artist, who can be relied upon for an approach to history which forgives without forgetting, which is certainly the best remedy for the grief still felt for the war of 1914-18. As Shonibare says, “It's such a bloody war that one couldn’t even attempt the horror and the death involved and the carnage. So I thought that it's better to take a different approach to the subject matter which is a more reconciliatory approach as opposed to a macabre approach”.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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