Yinka Shonibare: Addio del Passato @James Cohan

JTF (just the facts): A total of 5 large scale color photographs, framed in gold-edged black with no mat, and hung in the main gallery space. All of the works are digital chromogenic prints, sized between 59×71 and 59×78 (or reverse), each available in editions of 5. All of the works were made in 2011. The show also includes 2 costumes in glass cases, 1 video (17 minutes, in an edition of 6) on display an adjacent viewing room, and 3 sculptures on view in the front room. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Staged photographic recreations of scenes from paintings are nothing particularly new in contemporary photography. Cindy Sherman famously reinterpreted a variety of characters from the pantheon of art history in her late 1980s “History” portraits, and more recently Sharon Core has made exacting reproductions of everything from Wayne Thiebaud’s luscious cakes to exuberant 18th century Dutch floral still lifes. Yinka Shonibare’s new photographs also employ this aesthetic device, taking the framework and structure of famous death scenes from centuries past and reimagining them with a wholly different cast of characters.

British hero Lord Nelson (complete with a white wig) takes center stage in these photographs, outfitted not in a standard naval uniform, but in one crafted entirely out of brightly colored patterned fabrics: a flashy ensemble consisting of a yellow overcoat, an orange shirt, blue pants and orange leggings. Shonibare has used these Dutch wax pattern textiles time and again in his work to signify the distinctiveness of African cultural identity. Along with a group of actors of contrasting races, these changes in costumes and staging give the pictures an incongruous metaphorical tone: a symbol of the British Empire lays dying, clothed in the unexpected trappings of colonialism. The effect is even stronger when the death is so obviously a suicide (a limp wrist holding a gun, a dagger thrust at the stomach, an empty pill bottle on the floor); the decline of the great power was self inflicted.

The Fake Death Pictures are surrounded by a number of other sculptural objects and a video, giving them the feel of a larger, integrated ensemble installation. But in the end, I was focused on the photographs. Shonibare’s visual inversions (both eye-popping and more subtle) are relatively straightforward one-for-one replacements, but they are still remarkably effective in disrupting the dramatic balance of the original scenes. He hijacks these stories and rebuilds them with his own theatrical narrative, calling attention not only to an alternate view of history, but also to the many symbolic parallels in current times: the once powerful empires are decaying, challenged by the continuing rise of the once underestimated.

Collector’s POV: The photographs in this show are priced at £25000 each, including the artist’s frame. Shonibare’s works have very little history in the secondary markets for photography, so discerning any kind of pricing pattern from so few data points is difficult. As such, gallery retail is likely the best option for interested collectors at this point.

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