Last Updated on March 3, 2024

Serpentine galleries London presents a solo exhibition of new and recent works by British Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare (b. 1962, London, UK), one of the most esteemed artists of her generation. Titled “Suspended States,” the exhibition will be presented at Serpentine South from 12 April to 1 September 2024.  

The first solo exhibition of Shonibare’s work for over 20 years in a London public institution, it marks a return for the artist who first exhibited at Serpentine South in 1992 as a finalist in the Barclays Young Artist Award and as a participant in Serpentine’s 2006 Interview Marathon.

“Suspended States” will include new and recent installations, sculptures, pictorial quilts, and woodcut prints. The works on view will explore central themes of legacies of colonial power, sites of refuge and shelter. Shonibare’s new works center on conflicts and related migration, and conversations on public sculptures and their significance in our cities.

The exhibition will also delve into the ecological impact of colonization, the European legacy of imperialism and consequential attempts at peace.

“My work has always been about the crossing of boundaries; geographically, visually, historically, and conceptually,” Yinka Shonibare CBE RA said. “’Suspended States’ is an exhibition that addresses the suspension of boundaries, whether psychological, physical, or geographical — all boundaries of nationhood are in a state of suspense. This is an exhibition in which Western iconography is reimagined and interrogated, at a moment in history when nationalism, protectionism and hostility towards foreigners is on the rise.”

Yinka Shonibare Artworks

Yinka Shonibare Food Man
Yinka Shonibare Food Man. Courtesy of the artist.

The first installation, Sanctuary City, comprises a series of miniature buildings which are currently or have historically been places of refuge for persecuted and vulnerable groups. These include recent buildings Hôtel de Mille Collines, Rwanda, and Refuge’s headquarters in London; sites of worship such as Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, and the Chinese Methodist Church, Hong Kong; ancient sites Temple of Theseus, Greece and the Tokeiji Temple, Japan will also be included in the large-scale installation. Each model is painted black, with Dutch wax print interiors illuminated with lights from within, creating a somber atmosphere to contemplate humanitarian needs for shelter around the world.

The artist describes the shelter crisis as “one of the most pressing political concerns right now.”

Continuing Shonibare’s Library series is The War Library, the second new installation in the show which features 5,000 books bound in Dutch wax print with gold lettering on the spines indicating conflicts and peace treaties with links to imperial ambitions.

Shonibare’s Creatures of the Mappa Mundi draws from the imagery of Hereford Cathedral’s medieval map. The works look to the history of xenophobia in European history and the resulting extinction of species.

“The map reflects our contemporary concerns of fear of the stranger or ‘other’ which often leads to xenophobia,” Shonibare said. “The depictions of extinct creatures of legend are a reminder that we may yet become extinct if we do not take care of our environment.”

The series of African Bird Magic quilts juxtaposes images of African artefacts which inspired Western Modernism with images of endangered African birds. These pieces explore the degradation of the African environment through colonial industrialization and its disastrous effects on ecology.

“The first institutional exhibition of Yinka Shonibare CBE was held here at Serpentine 32 years ago, and it is a special honor to welcome the artist back to the galleries,” Bettina Korek, CEO of Serpentine and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Artistic Director, Serpentine, said. “As a multidisciplinary storyteller, Shonibare’s work epitomizes Serpentine’s mission of building new connections between artists and society. Suspended States continues in Shonibare’s career-long interrogation of colonial histories and the legacies of public art, a line of questioning we could not be prouder to share with audiences in London for the first time in decades.”

Dutch Wax Print

Throughout the exhibition are works incorporating Shonibare’s signature use of Dutch wax print, a symbol of the tangled relationship between Africa and Europe. This brightly colored fabric was inspired by Indonesian batik designs, mass-produced by the Dutch and eventually sold to British colonies in West Africa.

 Replicas of London public monuments including colonial figures such as Queen Victoria and Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener have been scaled down and painted with Dutch wax print-style patterns to query their public authority in the series Decolonised Structures. These works draw attention to the role of the original monuments and question their continued presence in the public realm.

 They parallel Unstructured Icons and Cowboy Angels featuring African masks superimposed over the faces of Western power holders and cowboys. Unstructured Icons highlight luxurious lifestyles supported by colonization and the importance of African art to the global culture and economy.

The exhibition is curated by Tamsin Hong, Exhibitions Curator, and Alexa Chow, Exhibitions Assistant Curator, in close collaboration with the artist, and is produced by Halime Özdemir.

About the Artist

Yinka Shonibare CBE RA (b. 1962; London, UK), studied Fine Art at Byam Shaw School of Art, London (1989) and received his MFA from Goldsmiths, University of London (1991).

 His interdisciplinary practice uses citations of Western art history and literature to question the validity of contemporary cultural and national identities within the context of globalization. Through examining race, class and the construction of cultural identity, his works comment on the tangled interrelationship between Africa and Europe, and their respective economic and political histories.

 In 2004, he was nominated for the Turner Prize, and in 2008, his mid-career survey began at Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, travelling in 2009 to the Brooklyn Museum, New York and the Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institute, Washington D.C. In 2010, ‘Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle’ was displayed on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, London and is in the permanent collection of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

In 2013, he was elected a Royal Academician and was awarded the honor of ‘Commander of the Order of the British Empire’ in 2019. His installation The British Library was acquired by Tate in 2019 and was on display at Tate Modern, London from 2019-2022.

Shonibare’s works are in notable museum collections internationally, including the Tate Collection, London; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome and VandenBroek Foundation, The Netherlands.

About Serpentine

Building new connections between artists and society, Serpentine presents pioneering contemporary art exhibitions and cultural events with a legacy that stretches back over half a century, from a wide range of emerging practitioners to the most internationally recognized artists, writers, scientists, thinkers, and cultural thought leaders of our time.

Based in London’s Kensington Gardens, across two sites, Serpentine North and Serpentine South, Serpentine features a year-round, free program of exhibitions, architectural showcases, education, live events and technological activations, in the park and beyond the gallery walls.

The Serpentine Pavilion is a yearly pioneering commission, which began in 2000 with Dame Zaha Hadid. It features the first UK structures by some of the biggest names in international architecture.

Proud to maintain free access for all visitors, thanks to its unique location, Serpentine also reaches an exceptionally broad audience and maintains a profound connection with its local community.

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