I am looking at a postcard that I bought for myself at a recent exhibition. It features two female mannequins, dressed in the kind of late 19th century gowns you associate with paintings by Renoir: fitted bodices, frilled sleeves, artfully draped and ruched bustles. The gowns are beautifully tailored and stylish. The neat toe of a fabric covered shoe peeps from beneath the hem of one lady’s dress.
The gowns are made of ornate, intricately patterned fabrics. But not the fabrics you’d normally associate with the era depicted. They are Dutch wax – the cloth that colonial Europe designed and exported as trade goods in the colonial era, first to Indonesia (who didn’t want it) and then to Africa, where it was enthusiastically embraced and is now claimed as emblematic of the continent.
The mannequins have no heads. They face each other side-on, left hands on hips, right arms raised, aiming pistols at where their adversary’s head should be. To me it represented the viciousness and contradictions of colonialism – but these ideas were presented in a way that’s so playful and humourous that my mind was freed up to engage with the piece, rather than just react to its politics.
The mannequins are competing to destroy each other. Colonialism damaged, destroyed or corrupted indigenous peoples and cultures in Africa and elsewhere. It poisoned relations between competing colonial powers, and it also damaged the colonisers’ humanity, though they were so bent on fulfilling their own greedy desires they were blinded to this effect.
The work is entitled “How to blow up two heads at once”, and it’s by Nigerian-English artist Yinka Shonibare, who’s recently had an exhibition at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. I didn’t manage to get there until the last day, to my regret, because I’d have liked to go back and spend more time with it. But the artworks are still vivid in my mind.
The two ladies stood opposite the entrance to the exhibition. I was excited when I first saw them, because I thought the pattern on one of the dresses was of peanut shells. This resonated for me, having recently come across an academic essay on the importance of the groundnut (peanut) in West African trade routes, but on closer examination they turned out to be thongs ( flip-flops), albeit with a definite cracked peanut-shell-like texture on them. In Ghana they are known as slippers, and everyone wears them, at least around the house. So it still worked for me, although on rather a different level.
But then different levels of representation are what Shonibare’s work is all about. I don’t know how deliberately he placed each of the multitude of patterned fabrics in his various works, but there’s a riot of symbolism in the textiles alone, before you even get to thinking about how they are being used. From floral motifs that I presume are European or Indonesian in origin, to icons of daily life in Africa, like the slippers, to Adinkra (and presumably other African) symbmbols such as Gye Nyame, that have deep roots in African culture, you could read almost any story you wanted into the artworks. Even the vibrant or fluorescent colours of some pieces of cloth remind me of how colonialism is still with us. These colours could not be produced without the petrochemical industry – case in point being Shell Oil’s bad track record in Nigeria for its association with human rights abuses and environmental damage.
Another piece “Scramble for Africa” shows a company of gentlemen posed around a large table inlaid with a 19th century map of Africa. Clearly they are in lively debate about how to divide the continent in their own best interests. Again, they are dressed in the colours and patterns of Dutch wax, right down to their spats. Again, they are headless. Brainless? Clueless? Greed made them lose their heads? United by their blind rapaciousness perhaps, as it is, after all, a representation of the Berlin conference on 1884-85, in which European heads of government met to partition Africa & thus define their own spheres of imperial interest.
This exhibition ticked a lot of boxes for me – my love of textiles, my passion for social justice, my interest in history and commitment to anti-racism – and perhaps most of all, my belief that political art doesn’t have to be heavy-duty and depressing to be effective. I loved it – hope Yinka Shonibare makes it back to our shores again.
This video by a student shows some of the artworks, so you can see for yourselves, plus read more about Shonibare’s ideas and motivations.