A recent exhibition by the Nigerian-British artist Yinka Shonibare prompted some reflections on the relationship between medium and artwork, and between concept and execution, in contemporary art. Shonibare uses ‘wax print’ textiles, manufactured in Europe for consumers in West Africa using South Asian technology, to create installations that critique the power relationships of colonialism. His latest pieces incorporate specially commissioned textiles printed with symbols of international currency such as the Yen and the Dollar. However this is not immediately apparent as textiles for the West African market draw on a wide range of imagery, including symbols that reflect consumer familiarity with global brands.
This point is made explicit by another work featured in this show, ‘Bling Painting’, which revisits Shonibare’s earlier work ‘Sun, Sea and Sand’, a series of discs or platters covered with wax print motifs. In this version the discs are surrounded by rays or spokes topped with sequinned miniatures of Western consumer products, from designer logos, to handbags, to AK47 rifles and the mercenary soldiers who wield them. The disconnection between the glitzy designer logos and the bold textile motifs raises questions about modern African culture which are not easy to answer.