My Cultural Life: Yinka Shonibare

The British-Nigerian artist on what he’s reading, watching and more

yinka shonibare
David Parry

A self-described ‘post-colonial hybrid’, British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare was born in London but spent his formative years in Lagos. He’s best known for his unflinching reflections on race, class and identity – including the sculptures of headless figures dressed in his signature batik fabrics – and tireless commitment to cultural exchange via the Yinka Shonibare Foundation. He was awarded an MBE in 2004, then a CBE in 2019, and named as the Whitechapel Gallery’s eighth Art Icon. A Royal Academician since 2013, he is the coordinator of this year’s Summer Exhibition, on display until 2 January 2022.

The first album I loved was Off The Wall by Michael Jackson. It had some great dance tunes, so I danced to it!

At the moment I’m listening to Celeste. I love the way she sings, and the fact that she’s very individual in her approach to music.

london, england   may 11 celeste attends the brit awards 2021 at the o2 arena on may 11, 2021 in london, england photo by jmenternationaljmenternational for brit awardsgetty images
American-British singer Celeste

A book that influenced me recently was Critique of Black Reason by Achille Mbembe, which I read as part of my research for my role as coordinator for this year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. It helped shape my idea, which is around ‘reclaiming magic’ – celebrating and restoring value to marginalised practices that may not be included in the Western canon of art history.

Favourite films? There’s a filmmaker I’m really into called Joanna Hogg. I recently watched Archipelago, and Exhibition was fantastic.

I’m currently watching Call My Agent. It’s a real guilty pleasure.

My lockdown discovery was the live streamed performances from Sadler’s Wells. I would go there frequently pre-pandemic, so it was wonderful to still be able to witness such skilled performances.

My favourite quote is by Abraham Lincoln: ‘The best way to predict your future is to create it.’ I like its sense of agency – this idea that you are responsible for making your own future.

The gallery I absolutely love to visit is the Victoria & Albert Museum. My favourite room there contains four incredibly detailed and beautiful tapestries known as the Devonshire Hunting Tapestries that date from the 1400s. They are completely exquisite.

yinka shonibare
The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries at the V&A
Victoria and Albert Museum

One of the most impactful collections I’ve ever seen was the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures, which forms part of the Tokyo National Museum. It’s a fantastic collection that houses more than 300 objects from the 7th and 8th centuries. One room specifically had a display of ‘Gigaku’ masks, traditionally used by performing actors as part of Buddhist ceremonies.

I’m most looking forward to seeing the Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirror Rooms at Tate Modern.

My favourite place in the world is probably the Stockholm archipelago in Sweden. I visited the city in 2004, while working on my first film production, Un Ballo in Maschera, and we travelled out by boat. It’s incredibly tranquil and serene floating by the scenery of wood cabins and rugged forestry. And so unspoilt.

yinka shonibare
The Stockholm Archipelago is made up of some 30,000 islands
Magnus Olsson

Next, I’m travelling to Lagos, to visit one of the sites of my Foundation. There are two locations: one in the urban centre and the other in a rural setting, Ijebu. I’m particularly looking forward to seeing the farm site, as it’s located in a very peaceful, green part of the countryside and close to a local village. As part of my trip, I’ll be looking at the sustainable agricultural practices and local craft workshops we’re in the process of establishing there.

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