Local Arts

Can this abstract sculpture spur Davidson students to wrestle with tough questions?

Yinka Shonibare in his London studio in June.
Yinka Shonibare in his London studio in June. NYT

In his quest to capture the shape of wind, Yinka Shonibare started with a hair dryer and a piece of fabric. The British-Nigerian artist sees movement as a metaphor for the migration of people – immigrants, slaves, refugees. He wanted his fiberglass sculpture to convey that movement while appearing weightless, as if it were defying gravity. So he photographed the fabric billowing in the dryer’s artificial breeze. That photo became a mold, which he converted into a 3D image, and then a 3D print. That grew into a larger mold, stretching to 23 feet high. Shonibare worked with a team of assistants to shape the fiberglass and paint it shades of orange and turquoise, meant to resemble the fabric often worn by women in West Africa.

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Yinka Shonibare’s “Wind Sculpture (SG) 1” at Central Park. Jule Brown Courtesy of Public Art Fund

The end product was enormous, vivid, and confounding. “It’s sculpture trying to sculpt the impossible,” Shonibare said by phone from his London studio.

“Wind Sculpture SG (I)” was commissioned by the Public Art Fund to debut in New York City’s Central Park in March. But its unusual journey did not end there. In mid-November, the towering piece of public art finds a permanent home on the campus of Davidson College (a public dedication will be at 4:30 p.m. Nov. 14, on site). It’s part of the college’s growing sculpture garden and Davidson’s efforts to diversify its campus artwork. “It shows the kinds of monuments we can create,” said Lia Newman, director and curator of the Van Every/Smith Galleries at Davidson.

Shonibare is a renowned artist whose sculptures have appeared in London’s Trafalgar Square and at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. He often addresses the legacy of colonialism in his work, challenging conventional notions about the divisions between cultures and countries. Those themes resonated with Davidson officials. Last September, the college created a Commission on Race and Slavery – to be led by former Charlotte mayor Anthony Foxx – charged with examining how Davidson’s history “is intertwined with the institution and legacies of slavery and the lives of enslaved persons,” college president Carol Quillen wrote in a statement last fall.

Newman had followed Shonibare’s work since the mid-1990s, and thought his sculptures provided a new way to think about public art. Instead of building a monument to a flawed person – such as the Confederate statues that have sparked controversy on other university campuses – “Wind Sculpture” is more abstract, but “can still interrogate difficult subjects,” she said.

Shonibare’s series of wind sculptures evolved from another monumental work he created for Trafalgar Square, “Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle.” Admiral Lord Nelson’s victory against Napoleon in the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar led to the expansion of the British Empire. In his version of Nelson’s ship, Shonibare constructed 37 sails from brightly patterned Dutch batik fabric, which appears to be billowing in the wind.

Shonibare’s “Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle” in London in 2010. Matt Dunham AP

Shonibare frequently uses this fabric in his work because of the many layers of meaning it conveys. The colorful cloth was originally manufactured in Europe in the 19th century, designed to mimic handmade, Indonesian fabric. But when buyers in Indonesia rejected it, the printed fabric was marketed in the colonies of West Africa, where it later became a popular symbol of pride and independence. It’s now commonly associated with Africa, despite its colonial origins.

Shonibare, who was born in London and raised in Nigeria, enjoys upending assumptions about race and class in his work. He embraces his multinational identity and cautions against the nationalism that’s now on the rise in America and Europe. “You don’t have to be nationalistic in your approach,” he said. “That could lead to excluding a lot of people, which could then lead to a lot of hate. And historically we know that that has actually ended up in disaster.”

Pat Rodgers John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Pat Rodgers, CEO of Rodgers Builders and a member of Davidson’s Board of Trustees, saw “Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle” when she was traveling in London several years ago. She thought it was a striking exploration of the way sailboats were used to discovered new worlds in colonial times. “You have to start thinking about different cultures and how they met and how they developed into the world we know today,” she said.

An installation view of “The American Library” by Yinka Shonibare MBE at Davidson’s Van Every/Smith Galleries. (That MBE denotes Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, an honor from the Queen.) Hardback books, Dutch wax printed cotton textile, gold foiled names, interactive application. Courtesy of Van Every/Smith Galleries

So when Davidson approached Rodgers last year about acquiring a piece of Shonibare’s work for the campus, she was fascinated. “I think all public art, no matter where it is, stimulates thought [and] conversation,” she said. Rodgers is a longtime patron of the arts in Charlotte, whose company built the Bechtler and Mint museums uptown, along with Knight Theater, ImaginOn and more. Her late husband, B.D., loved sculpture and Rodgers was looking for a way to honor him, Newman said. Shonibare’s piece will be installed outside a new Rodgers building on Davidson’s campus, the E. Craig Wall Jr. Academic Center.

Installation closeup of Shonibare’s “The American Library.” Courtesy of the artist and James Cohan Gallery, New York. Photography by David Ramsey.

Along with the sculpture, Davidson is offering an exhibition of Shonibare’s work in its galleries. The centerpiece is “The American Library” – a collection of more than 6,000 books covered in Dutch wax fabric, with the names of first- and second-generation immigrants and the descendants of slaves embossed in gold on many of their spines. Donald Trump and Barack Obama are among the names included in the library.

The gallery exhibition is open to the public through Dec. 14. Shonibare plans to visit the campus Nov. 13-15 to dedicate the sculpture, speak to students and participate in a public discussion with Carol Quillen.

“I’d like them to be awed by the sculpture,” he said of his work. “I’d like them to be blown away by it. I’d like them to enjoy it and also, possibly, think about it.”

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte. Lisa Rab is a journalist in western North Carolina whose work has appeared in Harper’s and The Washington Post Magazine. Reach her at lisarab.com.

‘The American Library’

The sculpture “Wind Sculpture (SG) I” will be dedicated on-site at 4:30 p.m. Nov. 14; that’s open to the public, as is a conversation between Shonibare and college president Carol Quillen, at 7 p.m. Nov. 15 at the Duke Family Performance Hall in the Knobloch Student Center, with a reception in the Van Every/Smith Galleries afterward. The exhibition will be on view through Dec. 14 at the Galleries.