Friday, September 17, 2010

“Mother and Father Worked Hard So I Can Play”

The billboard outside the museum shows a headless mannequin child at play, dressed in an outfit that looks Victorian, yet makes me think of Africa.

“Mother and Father Worked Hard So I Can Play” is a special exhibit on loan from the Brooklyn Museum of Art, where the life-size fiberglass mannequins were arranged in the museum’s period rooms. Here at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota the work is similarly displayed in the Astor galleries, the former Astor Mansion’s library and salon.

The artist is Turner prize nominee Yinka Shonibare, MBE. Shonibare considers himself a product of the post-colonial era, a conceptual artist who strives to challenge assumptions and stereotypes through his art. Born in London and raised largely in Nigeria, the disabled artist makes his home in London these days. When he was studying art in that city, his tutor asked why Shonibare, as an African, was not doing authentic African art. He says that this remark is what set the course of his artistic journey. “I didn’t know how to be authentic. What would I do if I was being authentic?”

His quest for authentic African-ness led him to Dutch wax fabric - gorgeous African-inspired fabrics that were actually manufactured in Holland. He discovered that this fabric, ironically, was inspired by Indonesian batik design, made by the Dutch - and sold to colonial Africa. He often uses these fabrics in his work as a metaphor in an ongoing commentary on colonialism. The Anglo-African artist is not bent on protest - on the contrary, he says he wants to show that he is the same as whites have been for centuries, in that he is not “pure” African and that he, too, takes in other influences from this vast world. He maintains that authenticity is essentially something that you create.

Yinka Shonibare says that his race and disability, far from being drawbacks to him, have proved to be his greatest assets. Shonibare is attracted to paradox. He added the MBE to his name after he was made a member of the British Empire in 2005. Though his work pokes fun at this very empire, he says that he likes the juxtaposition and he genuinely loves the Royal Family and what he calls “vindaloo Britishness – the way everything is mixed up and so far from pure that it is lovely.”

This is what the Brooklyn Museum said of “Mother and Father Worked Hard So I Can Play”:

“This series of works, originally placed within the context of the Brooklyn Museum period rooms, drew upon the rooms’ expressions of American middle-class aspiration and achievement. The series features mannequins of children that are, characteristically of Yinka Shonibare’s practice, headless and dressed in Victorian costumes made from African fabrics.

At the Brooklyn Museum, the installation was akin to a treasure hunt, with mischievous children hidden in various parts of the rooms. Though the figures play in unexpected and physically challenging positions, their presence in the rooms was not immediately obvious, making the experience of wandering through to discover them uncanny. The mannequins suggest the overindulgence and recklessness of a privileged class of youth that has benefited from the hard work of its ancestors. Unruly and anarchical, the figures exhibited rebellious behaviors in direct opposition to their environment, rooms that through the placement of the belongings on display, elaborate textiles, and the refinement of the furnishings illustrate both the pride and constraints of the day.”

The Ringling’s version shows seven headless child mannequins at various stages of play in the Astor Galleries (bought at auction in New York by John Ringling in 1926, before the stately Fifth Avenue mansion was demolished). Each headless “child” is engaged in a different activity: playing marbles, doing a handstand, manipulating a marionette, cuddling a doll, riding a trike. The quirky “children”, complete with button-up boots - a bowtie here, a bustle there - are at home in these grand rooms. One of the mannequins is positioned on the floor beside an antique Concert Grand Piano. Strangely, their headlessness is not as startling as the exotically colored and patterned fabric of their meticulously tailored Victorian-era outfits. Yet it is the arrangement of the pieces that I find most unexpected here. Far from depicting rebellious playfulness, these small figures placed in isolation on the hardwood floor in barely furnished, gloomily-lit rooms under soaring ceilings seem to me harbingers of doom. “Mother and Father Worked Hard So I Can Play” – but the world around us is stripped bare.

It seems that Shonibare has once again defied expectation with the arrangement of this tantalising exhibit.

The artist’s most recent work, a piece commissioned by the Mayor of London for placement on top of Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth, was unveiled in May. Shonibare was the first black British artist to be invited to create a piece there.

He says:

"For me it’s a celebration of London’s immense ethnic wealth, giving expression to and honouring the many cultures and ethnicities that are still breathing precious wind into the sails of the United Kingdom…”


  1. A very detailed and interesting piece on an artist not known to me previously. (That means little, modern art and artists are out of my sphere of easy access). Thank you for introducing me.

    I love the title piece, an immediately eye-catching work.

  2. This is such a wonderful post, Carol-Ann. I can’t thank you enough for bringing this artist to our attention. When I read about the Dutch textiles, I thought, I know about this . . . but from where? And then I remembered: at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, tucked away in an odd corner, there was an exhibit of African textiles. Utterly exquisite, yet something I never would have thought to go looking for. I went running immediately for the booklet of the exhibit we’d brought home with us. There it was, the marvelous panel, “100 Years,” a “sampler containing one hundred panels of wax prints that he purchased in Brixton, South London, and that Vlisco had manufactured in Helmond, Netherlands, for ‘African’ consumers.” And who do you suppose it was, but Shonibare? There are so many riches in the world, and to be found in so many unexpected places. He merits being known by all of us, and you have helped in that with this excellent post.

  3. Dear Carol-Ann,
    thank you for that interesting description and interpretation of the exhibition!
    I find it very interesting that these children have no heads - I explain that to myself either that they are seen as a group, not individuals, or : children at that times were not accepted as thinking individuals. I think there is another paradox too: the Victorians with their stern view of the value of work allow their children to play - but by that they are belittled too, in a way. And they play in/with the riches gained from other nations, where the children till nowadays often have to work from a very tender age.
    To the question of "authenticity" I have very opposing views.

  4. friko - I also love the title piece - and title itself was so intriguing to me, I just had to pursue it!

    RA: What a coincidence that you saw these fabrics at the Metropolitan Museum of Art - you know what I mean then when I say that you have to see the fabric in real life to appreciate how gorgeous it is. Thanks for your kind words - it was a pleasure to research and write this post!

    Britta: Thanks for your comments - your interpretations are very insightful. I imagine Shonibare would be delighted to hear our take on his work. (And I'd love to hear what you have to say about authenticity!)

  5. I think the idea that we essentially create our own authenticity is an interesting one. Isn't fabrication the antihesis of authenticity? I think that the headless children at play are certainly harbingers of doom but maybe that's because at 30 years old I don't feel any closer to the playground that I expected, as a child, to find opened to me as an "adult"

  6. Thank you for introducing me to a new artist. I love all the new ideas and exhibits I am exposed to on Raining Acorns!

    I would love to see the fabrics in person, I have a feeling the photos do not do them justice.


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