White supremacy is a joke.
Nigerian-British artist Yinka Shonibare parodies stuffy aristocracy and the politics of whiteness in an exhibit that is closing soon at the Richard H. Driehaus Museum, a converted 19th century mansion in Chicago’s River North neighborhood.
Shonibare stages “Party Time: Re-imagine America” in a dining room with fiberglass headless mannequins wearing bold African prints. Feet kicked up on the table, arms flailing as if in engrossed conversation. Lots of full wine glasses. Certainly not prim and proper guests. The complexions of the mannequins are beige, leaving me puzzled as to whether the figures are colonized or colonizers.
The setting is un-ironic, given that the mansion was an embodiment of the Gilded Age when built in 1883, an era dripping with excess and unchecked capitalism. The Nickersons, a wealthy family, lived in the mansion back then and hosted elaborate dinner parties. In fact, Shonibare’s figures gather around the original dining room table in the restored mansion.
Shonibare’s work is kicking off a new series at the museum, “A Tale of Today: New Artists at the Driehaus.” The series will present artists of color commenting on what’s been called the Second Gilded Age, our current era of gross racial and income inequality.
A product of the British colonial system, Shonibare is equipped to comment on our own American structures of race, materialism and class. Searing commentary lies beneath the absurdity. Are these spaces that the colonized would have wanted to relax in? Is this what they would have worn? Is capitalism a given no matter who’s at the top of a social hierarchy?
I first saw Shonibare’s art more than a decade ago at my friend Natalie Hopkinson’s house in Washington, D.C. She had seen his exhibit at the Studio of Museum of Harlem and later found some images online of his 1998 “Diary of a Victorian Dandy.” She showed all her friends.
“I couldn’t stop laughing for months and months,” she said.
The five Dandy photographs also are on display at Driehaus, in a gallery that once was the Nickerson family’s private museum, where they showed off art collected from the East. Shonibare is the dandy in each of the five photos. He is surrounded by white nurses in a bed, by white businessmen in what looks like a pre-smoke-filled backroom to seal a deal, by adoring whites in a grand dining room — you get the picture.
“Yinka is a joke on white supremacy,” Hopkinson said. “He thinks it’s hilarious. He is at the center of his own universe. Everything about who he is as a West African, as somebody who is disabled — everything about him says he should be marginalized. But his art says he’s supreme.”
In every photo, the onlookers fawn over Shonibare or gaze at him in adulation. He is at the center.
In a catalogue interview with Driehaus Museum director and curator Richard Townsend, Shonibare said that what he’s doing is a kind of intrusion into spaces: “It’s almost like trying to reverse time, because I, perhaps, wouldn’t have been allowed to go into those places, or even eat in those places, or socialize in those places.”
Shonibare is having a conversation with his history and background while inviting the audience to peek in.
“It’s not about making myself look passive or pathetic,” he said in the interview. “And it’s not about feeling sorry for my ancestors. It’s actually about coming back and being playful with some of those things. Some of it is very serious. But at the same time, I think satire and humor are actually very, very, important.”
Because he belongs.
“Critics say he doesn’t belong. But in a global world he does belong,” Hopkinson said. “His roots run just as deep. He can claim any tradition. Black people are not marginalized. We are the center. You need that counter image to set the world right.”
Hopkinson is the author, most recently, of “A Mouth Is Always Muzzled: Six Dissidents, Five Continents, and the Art of Resistance.”
As soon as I saw the exhibit at Driehaus, I called her. She’s coming to Chicago before the show ends on Sept. 29 so we can laugh, center ourselves and contemplate the way capitalism guides our own lives.
Natalie Moore is a reporter for WBEZ.org
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