Although Yinka Shonibare deals with pressing global issues, his work is not dry. He wants viewers to engage on whatever level they choose, whether taking simple delight in his use of brilliantly patterned textiles or responding to the concerns he addresses.
Shonibare’s room-size installation “The American Library” is on view at the Davidson College Art Galleries through Dec. 14. The project includes 6,000 books covered in vivid Dutch wax textiles; on the spines of 3,200 of these books are the names of first- and second-generation Americans — some famous, some not — who have benefited from immigration. Most have made contributions to fields as varied as politics, art, and science; others have enriched themselves by exploiting and demonizing immigrants.
The remaining spines are blank, inviting interpretation: They could represent stories yet to be told, stories that are lost, or stories that will never be told by those who want to come here and can’t.
It is significant that Shonibare chose the library as a way to explore the immigrant experience. A free source of knowledge and a place of refuge, the library is traditionally a welcoming, egalitarian place where disparate people and ideas commingle — vastly different from the internet, where people receive information in ways that can harden their beliefs and shut out other voices.
Although the books can’t be removed from the shelves or otherwise touched, “The American Library” offers opportunities to interact, learn, and linger. Visitors can sit at a large library table and, via iPads, read brief bios of everyone whose name graces a book, view relevant videos and films dating back to the 1920s and add their personal or family immigration stories.
Yinka Shonibare MBE — the MBE denotes his membership in the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire — was born in England to Nigerian parents and grew up in Nigeria; he returned to London for college and has remained there since. At the age of 19, he contracted transverse myelitis, which left him paralyzed on the left side of his body and pushed him in the direction of conceptual art projects that could be completed by assistants. In the 1990s, he began using Dutch wax textiles, a familiar childhood sight, in his work.
Although now associated almost exclusively with Africa, these textiles were inspired by Indonesian batiks. Originally manufactured by the Dutch for sale in Indonesia, they generated little interest there, so they were subsequently marketed in Africa. Some are now made by a Chinese-owned company. With such a complex history, they are an ideal medium for addressing issues of colonialism and migration. In fact, Shonibare often renders stereotypically Western European garments — Victorian costumes, tutus — in these fabrics.
“The American Library” was first shown at the Cleveland Public Library as part of FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art. At Davidson, it is being presented in conjunction with the recent acquisition of Shonibare’s “Wind Sculpture,” a large outdoor work that was first exhibited in Central Park. In the galleries, it is also complemented by other works that give the viewer a fuller idea of the scope of the artist’s work.
Much of Shonibare’s work is unnerving in tone. “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” is a take on Francisco Goya’s famous etching of the same name. These five elaborate photographs extend the original’s sharp commentary on political corruption in Spain to address corruption and rampant materialism throughout the world.
The film “Odile and Odette” features the black swan and white swan maidens from the ballet “Swan Lake.” Stark representations of dark/light or evil/good, Odile and Odette are usually performed by one dancer playing obviously different roles. But here, Shonibare has recast them as mirror images, black and white dancers playing one role, challenging our need to see to see the world in binary terms.
More upbeat are the recent sculptures “Young Academician” and “Girl Balancing Knowledge IV,” schoolgirls balancing towers of books. They have star globes for heads, indicative of the importance of education to immigrant families and a thirst for knowledge that reaches beyond mere continents. These sculptures share the aspirational spirit evident in “The American Library.”
During a recent presentation on the Davidson College campus, Shonibare asserted that art is a form of entertainment and artists do not have the capacity to change the world. He believes their best hope is to make viewers think and then exert pressure on politicians and others who hold the power to bring about change.
“I wish,” he said, “my work were irrelevant.”
“Yinka Shonibare: The American Library,” Van Every/Smith Galleries, Davidson College; davidsoncollegeartgalleries.org; 704-894-2519; through Dec. 14.
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.