Review: Yinka Shonibare, Magic Ladders, at the Barnes Foundation

Shonibare in his London studio, Photo by James Mollison for Wall Street Journal Magazine
Shonibare in his London studio, Photo by James Mollison for Wall Street Journal Magazine

by Rachel Heidenry

The exhibition is perfect. Yinka Shonibare’s trademark cloths take center stage in a room full of gesticulating figures – children climbing up ladders, philosophers seated at writing desks, politicians debating the fate of Africa.

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Photo courtesy of the Barnes Foundation

Magic Ladders, on view at the Barnes Foundation through April 21st, is artistically flawless. Yinka Shonibare, the internationally respected artist born and raised in Laos, Nigeria but whose artistic training in London garnered him greater access, does wonders with color, texture and material. His combined touch of design and criticism produces works of art that not only incite humor and whimsy, but, more important, serious contemplation and historical reimagining.

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Photo courtesy of the Barnes Foundation.

For Magic Ladders, Shonibare takes the theories and beliefs of Dr. Alfred Barnes as his starting point. Children, their heads comprised of globes, climb ladders constructed out of books found in Barnes’ library. If they aren’t climbing they are reading – positioned so as to exude the spirit and enthusiasm of new discovery. Education, enlightenment and social mobility are the central themes, as the ability to rise up through the magical power of education becomes imprinted on these human figures.

Scramble for Africa, 2003, Photo courtesy of the Barnes Foundation

Also included in the exhibition are a handful of Shonibare’s famous works. The Scramble for Africa (2003) – a work every human being must see in person – dominates a corner room. The piece places politicians around a table, a map of Africa composing the wood surface, with debate implicit through crossed arms, raised fingers and slouched backs. Another series, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, a direct reflection of Goya’s noted painting, is replicated in four movements with four different bodies clad in the artist’s signature textile.

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Victorian Philanthropist’s Parlour (1996–97)

 One of the most intriguing installations is Victorian Philanthropist’s Parlour (1996-97), a period room in which the wallpaper, furnishings and flooring are outfitted in various exuberant hues of Shonibare’s making. The faux room is roped off, intentionally restricting access so as to emphasis its contents as markedly on display. Here, Shonibare directly critiques ideas such as accessibility and privilege, an ironic choice given the politics of place.

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The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters

This leads to my critique of the show – which has nothing to do with Shonibare’s mastery, concepts or themes – but everything to do with space. It is difficult to divorce the complicated and combative history of the Barnes Foundation from the artist’s critiques of privilege, art history and class. While Shonibare and Barnes himself would have seamlessly co-existed in agreement about what should be made, shown and exhibited, the criticality the artist emphasizes seems to exist in conflict with the institution the works lay within. Shonibare critiques the inaccessibility of the Victorian Philanthropist’s Parlour, while visitors are told no photographs, no touching, no crossing over that line. And while these regulations are certainly central to the works’ preservation, they also point out a failed opportunity to critically examine the institution itself.

Shonibare has no filter when it comes to his critiques of art history, politics and sociology. While the museum becomes indirectly implicated in those criticisms, the artist has failed to directly complicate the institution’s structure, history, finances and, on occasion, theft. In a show sponsored by retailer Anthropologie and housed in the (new) Barnes Foundation, these conversations must not be avoided.

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