What Makes Yinka Shonibare’s African Fabrics Unique?

Yinka Shonibare blends traditional African imagery with the Western art tradition of the colonial era.

Mar 25, 2024By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art

yinka shonibare african fabrics


British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare is an established superstar in the world of contemporary art. His most famous works incorporate patterned fabrics that are usually perceived as being traditionally African. These, however, include the elements of Western colonial culture. Yinka Shonibare was born in London but moved to Lagos, Nigeria, early in his childhood. As a child in an affluent family, he spent enough time abroad to consider himself cosmopolitan.


How Did Yinka Shonobare Become Famous?

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Yinka Shonibare photographed by David Parry, 2021, via Elle Decoration


Shonibare’s desire to become an artist was shocking to his family, yet, despite their lack of support, he enrolled in an art school and went back to London. Just three weeks into the study program, Shonibare contracted a spinal virus that left half of his body paralyzed. Despite this, months later, he returned to the art school, looking for new ways to create art.


The idea to work with his African heritage did not come to him immediately. Although Shonibare was always a politically engaged artist, he started his artistic path by commenting on diverse issues of ongoing history such as Perestroika, the 1980s reform in the USSR. Still, his art school professors complained about Shonibare not creating something they called authentic African art. At first, the artist was annoyed by his apparent obligation to fit into a racially predetermined category. However, later he understood that acceptance did not mean compliance: he agreed to use the outside expectations of him in his own favor, dismantling the system from the inside.


Today, Yinka Shonibare is one of the most prominent contemporary artists. His studio in East London doubles as a residence and exhibition venue for young artists unable to afford rent. Due to his limited mobility, Shonibare employs a group of assistants who do part of the manual work.

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The Unexpected Origins of Traditional African Fabrics

yinka shonibare girl installation
How Does a Girl Like You Get to Be a Girl Like You? By Yinka Shonibare, 1995, via MoMA, New York


While searching for his ‘authentic’ artistic voice, Yinka Shonibare explored African art but did not find anything relevant enough to use in his practice. He found his perfect material in something that was believed to be traditional African fabric—bright patterned cotton used for garments all over the continent. However, further research into its origins brought many surprises.


These patterned fabrics, also known as Ankara, or Dutch Wax Print, have almost nothing to do with the African tradition. During the nineteenth century, Dutch merchants learned the Indonesian technology of printing patterns onto fabric using wax to protect the uncolored parts of the cloth. Attempting to make production cheaper and larger, they built factories to replace Indonesian craftsmen, yet locals refused to buy their own traditional fabrics from foreigners. Still, the Dutch soon found another market for their mass-produced goods. Starting from West Africa, the fabric gradually spread to the whole continent, with its patterns mimicking those of traditional woven fabrics, different from region to region.


Although Dutch Wax Prints became the symbol of African postcolonial identity, they are essentially a product of the colonial era. Some believe this symbol was imposed on Africans by the West, while others insist they reclaimed it and turned it into an expression of power. Yinka Shonibare was intrigued by this ambiguity, and so his lifelong fascination with fabrics began.


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Double Dutch by Yinka Shonibare, 1994, via Yinka Shonibare


Shonibare created one of the first artworks incorporating Dutch wax fabric called Double Dutch in 1994. These were not yet the actual fabrics but a series of small paintings imitating fabric prints. Shonibare created this piece as a reference not only to African postcolonial culture but to Minimalism—a white-dominated, critically appraised, and absurdly expensive art movement that relied on simple geometric forms, grids, and repetition.


Later, Shonibare went even further in clashing narratives. He started to recreate dresses and costumes of Victorian-era nobility with printed cotton instead of expensive silks. The Victorian era was the emblematic era of the British Empire at the height of its colonial power. By using Dutch-born African fabric for excessive and fancy outfits of the English aristocracy, Shonibare launched an endless cycle of appropriation, reclamation, and mockery.


Shonibare and Fabrics: Notes on the Technical Process

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Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle by Yinka Shonibare, 2010, via Royal Museum of Greenwich, London


Yinka Shonibare employs a team of costume makers to ensure the proper construction of his fabric works, especially those related to historical garments. One of the costume makers called Dee Sheehan once said that the most complex part of Shonibare’s designs is not the sewing itself, but matching patterns so that the seams and cuts will not ruin the ornament of the fabric. Instead of ordering custom fabric, Shonibare chooses his cotton from one of the numerous small shops in London.


The famous British artist and printmaker William Morris is one of the artist’s biggest inspirations. Morris was a socialist who believed in the accessibility of art and good design. One of Shonibare’s projects even included reconstructing photographs from William Morris’ family album with a diverse group of models, showing the printmaker’s egalitarian ideas developing through the years.


Yinka Shonibare’s work with African fabric is not limited to sewing fashionable garments for mannequins. He uses it for public installations, such as Admiral Nelson’s ship HMS Victory, with its sails covered in patterns hidden inside a bottle like a gift shop souvenir. The prints also found their way into interior design, ballet production, and space suits.


Rethinking Western History

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Scramble for Africa by Yinks Shonibare, via Yinka Shonibare


The narrative of the repercussions of colonialism and reclaiming of agency is a constant for Shonibare. One of his best-known works titled Scramble for Africa is a theatrical, dramatic interpretation of the 1884 Berlin Conference. During the meeting in Berlin, the leading European powers at the time divided the African continent into countries and zones of influence, with no regard for the people living on the land. Up to this day, the political map of Africa remains entirely artificial and does not relate to ethnic or cultural borders. In Yinka Shonibare’s installation, headless figures dressed in Dutch wax clothing argue fiercely, each hoping to capture a bigger part of the prize.


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The Swing (After Fragonard) by Yinka Shonibare, 2001, via Tate, London


Yinka Shonibare is not simply an astonishing artist: he is a knowledgeable art historian who uses his knowledge in his creative work. He often plays with the canonical images of white Western art history by incorporating elements of African culture. The woman on a swing, painted by Jean-Honore Fragonard was an emblem of frivolous joys of European aristocracy, lavish lifestyle, and excess. Shonibare’s interpretation of the work is both joyful and ironic. Still, it also possesses a darker undertone of the exploitation underlying the careless lifestyles of nobility. Although the majority of art in Fragonard’s age expressed the joy of life and entertainment, only a tiny percentage of Europeans actually experienced that joy.


His other famous large-scale work The Victorian Philanthropist’s Parlour looks like something that can be found in a palace like Versailles. There is furniture arranged around a fireplace that screams luxury, while patterned wallpaper and decorations give the viewer’s eye no chance of rest. However, upon further examination, the viewer notices something inconsistent with the eighteenth-century noble life. Suddenly, the lavish space turns into a young boy’s bedroom. The printed curtains, screens, and sofas all have faces and figures of famous athletes printed on them.


Yinka Shonibare’s Obsession with Aristocracy

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Diary of a Victorian Dandy, 19:00 Hours, by Yinka Shonibare, 1998, via Yinka Shonibare


Yinka Shonibare was fascinated and even obsessed with the lives of European aristocracy during colonial times. He studied fashion and design history to get closer to these people. At the same time, he despised them. Shonibare’s works are simultaneously a critique of the establishment, and a deep, suppressed longing to become a part of it. In part, these works show the voyeuristic pleasure of discreetly observing something you were never allowed to be a part of.


His series of photographs Diary of a Victorian Dandy shows Shonibare as a young British aristocrat from the Victorian era who is surrounded by servants, attends balls and salons, and plays cards. As he originally intended, Shonibare destabilizes the system from within by simply allowing himself to reside in it.


Shonibare’s figures in patterned clothes rarely have heads, but when they do, they are replaced with globes or animal heads. There are multiple reasons for this, the first being Shonibare’s idea of not showing people with personalities but concepts and products of the environment. The lack of heads also plays in favor of racial ambiguity. All racialized markers are removed from sculptures deliberately in order to avoid assumptions. The third reason lies in the not-so-subtle joke about decapitation and the French Revolution.

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By Anastasiia S. KirpalovMA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art Anastasiia holds a MA degree in Art history from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Previously she worked as a museum assistant, caring for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. She specializes in topics of early abstract art, nineteenth-century gender, spiritualism and occultism. Outside of her work, she is interested in cult studies, criminology, and fashion history.