Yinka Shonibare: Suspended States at Serpentine South review – beautiful, alluring and disquieting

Yinka Shonibare CBE, Decolonised Structures, 2022-23. (Yinka Shonibare CBE)
Yinka Shonibare CBE, Decolonised Structures, 2022-23. (Yinka Shonibare CBE)

Yinka Shonibare’s 1990s epiphany in Brixton Market has prompted an extraordinary body of work. Then, he learned that the batik fabric that he’d associated with West Africa was inspired by Indonesian textiles, industrially produced in the Netherlands and then sold in Africa. He had the revelation he needed to subvert dubious notions of cultural authenticity and nationhood.

Ever since, he has used this material to explore the complexities and inequities of colonial history, and its legacies in the present, including the refugee crisis and climate change. Shonibare’s trick: to ally these weighty themes to aesthetic delight.

Installed with beautiful spareness, the Serpentine show features work made since 2017. It reflects how nimbly Shonibare evolves his work, with subtle extensions of earlier bodies of work alongside revelatory new pieces. And that trusty Dutch wax fabric remains constant, if in different degrees of saturation.

The show begins with one of his Wind Sculptures, inspired initially by Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle (HMS Victory with batik sails in the titular bottle) which stood on the Fourth Plinth from 2010 to 2011.

Shonibare realised that wind has propelled slavery and migration across the centuries, and sought to capture his signature fabric as if in breeze-borne motion. This example is in bronze, whose resonant sheen is visible in the leaf decorations on the sculpture. It sits illuminated beneath the Serpentine’s circular lightwell and seems about to be sucked into it.

Yinka Shonibare (Klara Bloomgarden-Smoke)
Yinka Shonibare (Klara Bloomgarden-Smoke)

The latest in Shonibare’s room-filling library installations is the War Library. Thousands of books individually covered in batik sit on white shelves. On the spines of 3,000 of them, embossed in gold, are the names of global wars and treaties, many certainly unknown to most of us.

It’s “an archive of human failure”, Shonibare has said. It reminds us how little we’ve learned despite endless tomes detailing conflict. Subtly, by enclosing them in material that often clothes bodies, it hints at the inevitable human cost.

In Sanctuary City, Shonibare enters new territory. It features models of buildings that have, over millennia, provided sanctuary for refugees or the underprivileged, including the United Nations building in New York, the Hôtel des Mille Collines in Kigali, Rwanda, the Theseum in Athens, and – pointedly, ironically – the notorious Bibby Stockholm.

The models are in a darkened room, lit from within, their interiors decorated with batik. It looks like a vast, sepulchral riff on presepes, those Neapolitan Nativity scenes – themselves a representation of the holy family as refugees, of course.

In Decolonised Structures, Shonibare has made versions of historic statues, of Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill and sundry imperial linchpins, with their original bronze patina replaced with colourful fabric patterns. So, figures with dubious colonial histories are jauntily decorated in a form that embodies the global cultures they ruled or exploited.

Shonibare makes them our size or smaller, brings them down to our level. He also leaves the objects held by the figures undecorated. They’re like saints’ attributes; but these symbols are mostly weapons and scrolls that suggest legal powers of subjugation.

It’s classic Yinka: a knack for immediate visual allure with subtle, knowing, lingering, disquieting meaning.

From April 12 until September 1; serpentinegalleries.org