Preview: “Yinka Shonibare MBE: Magic Ladders” at the Barnes Foundantion

by Roxanne GoldbergPosted on

Photograph © 2012 The Barnes Foundation

Clothing, as one of the most potent forms of personal expression, has the power to create identity and provoke judgment. In an upcoming exhibition at The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, “Yinka Shonibare MBE: Magic Ladders,” the Young British Artist explores colonialism, globalization, and the construction of race. The comprehensive exhibition features life-sized, headless mannequins identified as 18th century dandies, noblemen, philosophers and explorers, dressed in colorful Dutch wax textiles, a material produced during the Victorian era in Europe and sold in Africa, intentionally designed to emphasize primitiveness and exoticism.

Garishly dressed figures like Big Boy (2002) proudly present themselves to the world with arms outstretched, chest puffed and right foot forward. Confronted, the viewer is simultaneously intrigued and offended by the ostentatious colors and bold patterns, as the clothing designs are beautiful, yet clearly reminiscent of 18th century etchings and paintings, as well as modern-day movies depicting European colonialism. This effect is particularly strong in Scramble for Africa (2003), in which 14 life-sized mannequins are posed in argumentative action around a wooden table.

In contrast, the Barnes commissions Magic Ladders I, II, and III (2003) elicit a sense of naïve wonder and suggest a quest for a higher ideal. The fiberglass figures are also dressed in African cloth, and like the curious and joyful children reading and looking through telescopes in the series Planets in My Head, their heads have been replaced by globes, inscribed with the names of authors from various cultures. The exhibition catalog, featuring the personal correspondences of Albert C. Barnes (1871 – 1951) — who was one of the first art collectors to respect African objects as art, and to display them alongside Matisse, Picasso and Modigliani — reveals Shonibare’s inspiration was drawn from letters between Barnes and Leo Stein. A stimulating exhibition, Magic Ladders exploits clothing as the most basic form of protection and identity, to challenge the viewer to re-contextualize himself as a product of post-colonialism.

Photograph © 2012 The Barnes Foundation

Photograph © 2012 The Barnes Foundation

Photograph © 2012 The Barnes Foundation

Photograph © 2012 The Barnes Foundation

Photograph © 2012 The Barnes Foundation

2 thoughts on “Preview: “Yinka Shonibare MBE: Magic Ladders” at the Barnes Foundantion

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