His royal highness

Pub date March 11, 2009
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature

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REVIEW Yinka Shonibare’s 1998 photographic essay Diary of a Victorian Dandy, Member of the Order of the British Empire runs like clockwork.

At 11 a.m., Shonibare the nobleman is shown waking and then donning a nightcap in his gilded bedroom; he’s surrounded by four ruddy-cheeked buxom maids and a pale, thin butler, who each cater to his every whim. At 2 p.m., dressed in a three-piece blue-gray suit, he tends to business in his private library. Busts of Greek and Roman conquerors sit atop mahogany bookshelves, observing while high-collared, porcine sycophants with handlebar mustaches congratulate Shonibare on squandering what’s left of his father’s fortune.

By 3 p.m., Shonibare’s nobleman has retired to another bedroom, where — sporting a salmon-pink velvet vest and matching satin tie — he reclines on a chaise lounge with a glass of red wine. An undressed brunette woman on his left caresses the vest, her eyes turned upward as if she’s entranced by his wealth and power. A red-haired girl to his right runs her fingers through his hair. In the background, a woman dressed in a hoop skirt fellates one of Shonibare’s sycophants, another woman lies at the foot of the bed, and still another looks bored as she’s buggered by one of Shonibare’s consorts.

Five p.m. brings a rousing game of billiards in the parlor. The day’s activities end at seven, with white ties, tails, and candelabras in a plush dining room replete with red velvet curtains and gilded framed oil portraits of aristocrats in powdered wigs.

Shonibare is a heavily bearded, 46-year-old Nigerian. This hairy black man, assuming the role of a dandy, places himself at the center of all his photos, reveling in absurd glory. "Historically, the dandy is usually an outsider whose only way through is his wit and style," Shonibare explains, in a text within the monograph Yinka Shonibare MBE (Prestel USA, 208 pages, $55), edited by Rachel Kent. "His apparent lack of seriousness of course belies an absolute seriousness, and that attracts me to the dandy as a figure of mobility who upsets the social order of things."

Shonibare has upset the British social order and gained mobility — including an exquisitely absurd and very real royal appointment — by creating Victorian costumes from Dutch wax print fabrics, then placing them on headless mannequins that strike leisurely poses. Much like the dandified role that he often assumes, his art seems excessive and frivolous at first glance — high fashion in extremis. But it takes on greater dimensions with consideration. The Dutch wax prints that play a prominent role in Shonibare’s work, for example, are usually associated with Africa, though they were first designed in Indonesia, then imported by the Dutch, who brought them to West Africa during the slave trade, making them a symbol of the height of colonization and imperialism.

The actions of Shonibare’s figures: skating (in 2005’s Reverend On Ice), seducing (in 2007’s The Confession) and swinging, both literally (in 2001’s The Swing — after Fragonard) and figuratively (in 2002’s Gallantry and Criminal Conversation), contain surreal, violent, erotic, and decadent connotations. Like his contemporary Kehinde Wiley, or like Ghostface and Prince in the realm of music, Shonibare uses the rococo movement of pre-revolutionary France as a point of departure. Figures of excess and tools of subversion, his headless mannequins take on references to the guillotine.

"Excess is the only legitimate means of subversion, " Shonibare has said. "Hybridization is a form of disobedience … an excessive form of libido, it is joyful sex." An illustration of such ideas, this monograph retrospective of Shonibare’s painting, sculpture, photography, and film work is a must-have piece of Afro-surreal ephemera.