Captured in Yinka Shonibare MBE's characteristically vibrant and outspoken style, Hound is a perceptive re-interpretation of the issue surrounding power, race, and colonialism. Presented with the artist's very characteristic aesthetic vision, Shonibare re-interprets the traditional English upper-class pursuit of fox hunting. His appropriation of African fabrics creates a tableau of extravagantly-dressed mannequins and becomes as much a comment on the nature of race and identity as on a class-based society. In Hound, Shonibare takes a traditional English hunting scene-carried out for hundreds of years by landowners partly as a way of controlling the fox population, but also as part of the aristocratic ceremony that became an important part of English social life-and re-examines its origins, delivering in the process a bitingly perceptive interpretation of the ritual. These incredibly rich, multi-layered installations have become the central pillar of Shonibare's oeuvre, produced by an artist whose own rich cultural heritage has given him a unique viewpoint on this elite world. It is his personal experiences together with his rich visual sense, which make works such as Hound as intellectually compelling as they are visually beautiful.
Commanding the center of this absorbing work, three figures clad in kaleidoscopic hunting outfits, fashioned out of the artist's signature highly-colored African-style fabrics, muster their hounds in pursuit of their quarry. The subject of the chase, the fox, looks nervously over his shoulder as the pack of four beagles picks up his scent. The naturalistic rendition of the fox and hounds, which is juxtaposed with the distinctly non-traditional interpretation of the huntsmen's garments, sets up an intriguing dialogue about the nature of reality. Shonibare's use of African-print fabrics lies at the heart of his debate about the nature of history and symbolism. Although these designs have become symbols of "African-ness," their origins are much more complex and encompass Africa, Europe, and the Far East. Inspired by the traditional batik fabrics of Indonesia, they were, in fact, manufactured in the nineteenth century in Netherlands and the North West of England and then marketed to West African buyers. Since then they have become a symbol of authentic African identity, both in the African countries themselves and for those who have emigrated to the West, particularly in the post-war period. It is precisely this sense of irony, global interconnectivity, and tangled trans-continental history that appealed to Shonibare: "What that means to me is a metaphor...of interdependence" (Y. Shonibare, quoted in R. Kent, "Time and Transformation in the Art of Yinka Shonibare MBE," Yinka Shonibare MBE, exh. cat., Munich, 2008, p. 12).
Peeling away accumulated layers of meaning is what lies at the very heart of Shonibare's work. By combining high art and popular culture in this distinctive way, he is able to examine a different depiction of the way society functions. The concept of leisure is particularly important to the artist: "To be in a position to engage in leisure pursuits, you need a few bob. You need spare time and money buys you spare time. Whilst leisure pursuits might look frivolousmy depiction of it is a way of engaging in that power. It is actually an expression of something much more profoundly serious insofar as the accumulation of wealth and power that is personified in leisure was no doubt a product of exploiting people" (Ibid., p. 14). This is ably suggested by Hound as the army of stable boys, housemaids, and various servants needed to facilitate these "leisure" events on Britain's country estates would have been vast.
Shonibare was born in Britain to Nigerian parents who moved the family back to Lagos when he was three. He later returned to England at the age of sixteen when his parents sent him to an elite boarding school. His privileged lifestyle in Nigeria meant that when he arrived in London he was surprised to see so many of his fellow countrymen living in Britain that had not been so lucky: "I was actually surprised when I came to Englandand found out that there was this notion that if you were black you were somehow disadvantaged--I thought this was hilarious. But you either dwell on those issues or turn them to your advantage" (Y. Shonibare, quoted in R. Hobbs, "Yinka Shonibare MBE: The Politics of Representation," ibid., p. 25). This dramatic difference in the perception of race between his experiences in Nigeria and England soon formed the basis of much of his artistic production. After studies at the prestigious Goldsmith's College, whose notable alumni include Lucien Freud, Damien Hirst, and Tracey Emin, Shonibare began to design small squares of what came to be considered his iconic African-print fabric, which he overlaid with pigment and then arranged en masse on a monochrome background. Subsequently, he produced large-scale sculptural works, which came to form the most important part of his diverse oeuvre, these consist of compositions of his own creation or appropriations of famous works from art history, such as his interpretations of Fragonard's The Swing, 1766, or Gainsborough's Mr and Mrs Andrews, c. 1750. His central role in the contemporary canon was confirmed by his nomination for the 2004 Turner Prize and the over thirty-three one-person museum exhibitions, which culminated in the recent major retrospective (2009) organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, and which travelled to the Brooklyn Museum and the National Museum of African Art at Washington D.C.'s Smithsonian Institution. In 2005 Shonibare was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth and his acceptance of this honor and his insistence on using the MBE moniker is a further example of his ironic re-appropriation of Britain's colonial past.