‘My Disability is Not a Setback to My Dreams’

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Yinka Shonibare, a physically challenged British-Nigerian painter, photographer and installation artist, whose art is influenced by both the cultures of Nigeria, where he grew up, and Britain, where he was born, studied and now lives. He spoke with Mary Ekah about his recent exhibition in Nigeria, his life as a physically challenged artist, future plans and more

How long did it take you to come up with this wonderful piece?
That piece called the ‘Wind Sculpture’ took me about two years in developing the idea and finding the best way to do it so that the work can stand out very well and resist the weather, especially when it rains. So there is a bit of research behind it, apart from the actual design.

Could you describe the work?
The work, ‘Wind Sculpture’, is a sculpture of Ankara fabric hauling in the air but on a completely different scale. It is beautiful and it is a kind of work that would make a powerful statement and history. So all I’m trying to do is to make a statement with my artworks. It’s six metres tall and looks very beautiful. The installation titled, ‘Wind Sculpture’, forms part of a series of important large-scale works that marked a new departure for me by working with fibreglass and steel. Using these materials, I investigate the shifting movement of wind passing through fabric.

With Wind Sculptures, I have captured a moment in time where wind passes through my signature Dutch wax batik fabrics on a dramatically grand scale. These six metres high sculptures appear to be an ephemeral billowing form but are actually rendered in steel and fibreglass. The organic concaved and convexed shapes formed by nature are mirrored in the patterns, which replicate ‘African’ fabrics. There is a different pattern and palette for each sculpture in the series that are hand painted onto the surface with bright colours. All of these elements together lend the work a magical and poetic quality that deliberately plays on initial perceptions and frames of reference. And I think it should make any building or any park very fantastic.

What informed the idea behind such work?
It is really about our connection as Africans with the rest of the world. The Ankara originally came from Indonesia, Dutch wax is also manufacture there and then they sell them in Africa. Most modern Africans are connected and not isolated. So this is celebration of the African renaissance and modernisation of African culture. I was born in London but I moved to Lagos as a child where I grew up and then I went back again to continue with my artwork. So I am modern African myself and so I am celebrating the modern traditional African art. My installations playfully mix up cultural and historical signifiers to blur boundaries between class and ethnicity, high and low art.

So why have you chose to focus on African culture?
Well, I think a lot of people are interested in African culture. You know a lot of artists talk about their own history, background, lifestyle and all that, and all these has got a lot to do with culture and an as an artist, I want to express that too.

Tell us where you draw your inspiration and also what is the driving force behind your art works?
My childhood dreams have been the driving force. I was a fan of art right from childhood. I look at other people’s works and also when I was young, I kept dreaming of actually being able to make beautiful things and I have managed to achieve my dreams. And this is a work I have really enjoyed, so when you enjoy your work, you simply continue doing it without getting tired nor get discouraged by any challenge and that what has been with me because this is a job that I enjoy.

I draw my inspiration from my history and my background. I grew up in Nigeria from the age of three till the age of 17 when I went to England to study Fine Art, first at Byam School of Art (now Central Saint Martins College) and then at Goldsmiths College, where I received my MFA. My upbringing was very elite; I was opened to a lot of influences, I used to go to the museum in Lagos when I was a child. So my arts actually developed from my own culture and upbringing. And then I went to England where I was actually able to learn about international arts and also I was able to learn the history of arts and that has also helped me to kind of direct my work in the right way. So my work explores issues of race and class through the media of painting, sculpture, photography and film.

What has been the major challenge in trying to achieve your dreams?
It has been very difficult since I was a teenager, and you know in Nigeria, we don’t really want our children to study Arts. So at first, my family wanted me to study Law or Engineering but after few years of trying to persuade me, they realised that Arts was really what I wanted to do and then they supported me to do that and I had a lot of support in England too. But when I was 19, I became very ill, which led to my being confined to a wheel chair now. But if you are determined, no matter what obstacles you have on your way when you focus on hard work and also have people to encourage you along the line, you can achieve whatever you want in life.

What gives you the zeal to push beyond your physical challenge in life?
I am a very determined person. It happened that when I was 19 years old, and, had returned to Britain to do my A-levels at Redrice School, I become very ill. I actually contracted transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord, which resulted in a long-term physical disability where one side of my body is paralysed but I was very determined to develop my career. I have always wanted to be an artist and I didn’t want my disability to be a setback to my dreams. I acknowledge the fact that I do have a physical disability but I was determined from the onset that the scope of my creativity should not be restricted purely by my disability.

And Because of my disability, which confines me to a wheelchair, I am physically incapable of carrying out the making of the work myself, and so I rely upon a team of assistants to realise my artistic vision. I became a conceptual artist who delegates much of the production of my labour-intensive projects to a network of other artists. I believe that as long as the right things are in place for you to do what you want to do, you should be able to express your talents regardless of your situation.

And so I am happy that I have been able to have that kind of support that has now given me an international art career. And now I’m able to show my works all over the world and I am so happy to be in Nigeria doing the same thing. I have been showing my works internationally since I started, so it is very exciting having to come back to my roots to showcase my works for the first time.

Would you say that Arts has been financially rewarding in Nigeria?
You do have to work very hard and like every other thing else, not all artists are going to be financially successful but Arts is a great profession with very high rewards. It is very risky; it is a bit like music and acting, it is not everyone that sings that has really made it. There are people who can actually sing so well but yet they never become successful in that field. Art is the same, you have to be determined and continue to do your best and by the quality of your wok, people will begin to buy your works, show your works and support you.

What are your plans for the future, especially for the Arts?
Right now I have bought some land in Lagos and I am going to build a school there and then an international residence for artists. I want to bring artists from the entire world to come and meet with Nigerian artists and then have a conversation and exchange ideas. We hope to start building the place this year. So in future, you are likely to see more from me. It took me a very long time to acquire the land but now I have it and I’m hoping that this is the beginning of something bigger. And again, it will really be nice to have our own museum for contemporary art and design in Lagos.

What is your advice to young visual artists in Nigeria?
My main advice is for them to stay focus on whatever they are trying to do. You must also look at the works of a lot of other artists so that you can be better at what you are doing. And we should also be able to read about the history of art and our culture and by knowing what a lot of other people did before; so you can improve on what you are doing. So if you are hard working and you are also prepared to look at the works of other people, then you can be successful that way.

Do you have any advice for the government?
I think all governments should realise that artists could actually bring wealth to society. And if we encourage our artists, we can build the market and also we can improve tourism and people will want to come to Lagos, and else where in Nigeria to see more arts and hotels will also make lots of money. So everybody will win, when the government starts supporting arts.