Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Superb videos

Yinka Shonibare MBE
Toured by the MCA, curated by Rachel Kent
New Gallery, Auckland Art Gallery
February 28 – June 1, 2009

This is a rare opportunity to see a substantial body of work from this well known English/Nigerian artist, with his distinctive, Dutch conceived, Indonesian-influenced wax-resist fabric trademark - and accompanying post-colonial, centre-versus-margins discussion. The only other time Shonibare's work has been seen in Aotearoa was in the mid-nineties at Te Papa in Pictura Britannica. Like this, that was a MCA (Sydney) initiated exhibition.

The show’s title is very odd. Is Shonibare winking at us with his MBE used as a supplementary part of the title, or is he serious? We can’t accept the former as self-evident – despite his context of post-colonial issues – because vain strutting artists are commonplace. To accept and promote an Award that embodies the notion of Empire does seem to want to have an intact cake and eat it too. However the mocking humour of his videos, especially The Masked Ball, does indicate he is pulling our collective leg.

Shonibare’s videos, his most recent projects in the show, are vastly superior to the earlier photographs and painting. For example his paint handling on the circular stretchers (those without ‘African’ fabric) within the wall mural is crude, looking as if applied over thick plaster-of-Paris. The use of gold makes it especially tacky, though that probably is deliberate when going with the nasty-looking painted drops of splashed oil.

Also the photographic works based on Goya and Hogarth fail because the original source material, with its vicious satire and indignant anger, gets to the point more effectively with paint or graphic line. Shonibare’s versions seem so insipid. Sure they are funny, but they are not devastating like his videos. They have a flat mat surface and that literal dullness works against their humour. They look dreary.

The videos resonate because of their movement mixed with high definition acuity and great depth of field. This clarity, with the swirling formations of the dancers, witty editing of alternating positions, and music-like repetitions and reversals, provides a kinetic drama we do not normally associate with this artist. The rich sensuality of the lavish costumes, the entertaining pantomime-like facial expressions of the dancers (behind their ornate masks), and the tremulous limbs and fluttering hands, all make Shonibare’s videos unforgettable.

This show though is very good, but not great. It is too piecemeal for that, despite the inclusion of some wonderful sculpture. The two video projections connect more with works that are not included than those which are present; not in the area of colonial history but more in the zone of Victorian sexuality. This is the area discussed by Foucault in The Will to Knowledge, where he points out that they were no more repressed than we are.

Shonibare has explored this theme of 18th and 19th century sexual mores brilliantly with sculptures like The Swing (After Fragonard) 2001 and Gallantry and Criminal Conversation (2002), the later about the Grand Tour as an opportunity for sexual experimentation - works unfortunately not included.

Looking at the static, lavishly decorative, free-standing headless sculptures that are here, few are in the hysterically comic vein of The Masked Ball, the main video which theoretically is about the assassination of Gustav III. Both victim and murderer are played by women, and despite being shot at close range, the Swedish King keeps on recovering. Maybe that constant maintenance of the aristocracy is something Shonibare finds mischievously amusing. Like the perpetuation of the MBE.

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