‘One book, one pen, one child, and one teacher can change the world’
Yinka Shonibare’s compelling sculpture Girl Balancing Knowledge, 2015, exemplifies the artist’s vibrant practice, which draws from different cultures and traditions to address notions of identity in a hyper-globalised age. A British artist of Nigerian descent, Shonibare frequently places his own hybrid identity at the forefront of his works to raise questions concerning race, ethnicity, and gender in a so-called ‘Post-Colonial’ world. As Rachel Kent writes, his ‘art engages with history in order to draw attention to important issues in the present’ (R. Kent, ‘Time and Transformation in the Art of Yinka Shonibare MBE,’ Yinka Shonibare MBE, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2008, p. 22). In this work, a fibreglass mannequin is elegantly dressed in what at first glance appears to be traditional African dress. In a subtle nod to Africa’s troubled history of colonization, however, the elaborately patterned and colourful material is in fact Dutch wax cotton. Such poetic nuances are the hallmark of Shonibare’s style, which, to borrow the artist’s own words, ‘is actually not about the representation of politics but the politics of representation’ (Y. Shonibare, quoted in Yinka Shonibare MBE, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney 2008, p. 24). Indeed, the lifespan of the fabrics he uses itself becomes a vital metaphor for an increasingly interconnected global economy: produced in the Netherlands for sale in Indonesia, the excess supplies are subsequently sold back to suppliers in the UK. With a globe in place of a head – another of the artist’s poignant trademarks – the female figure in Girl Balancing Knowledge stands precariously on one leg, balancing an improbably stacked pile of books in her palm that have been forever frozen on the verge of toppling. With their classical Oxbridge stylings, these books seem to embody the Western educational establishment and indeed the very concept of knowledge exported around the world, and pursued by multinational children like Shonibare himself, who grew up balancing British and Nigerian values. Characteristically alluring and thought-provoking, Girl Balancing Knowledge plays signifiers of identity off against one another in its layered interrogation of history, knowledge and power in today’s society.