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Defining “Blackness” Series – Artist Yinka Shonibare Addresses *Authenticity* In Black Art

Defining "Blackness" Series - Artist Yinka Shonibare Addresses *Authenticity* In Black Art

It’s a conversation we continue to have, as I believe we should: What is “blackness?” “Black film?” A “Black aesthetic?” “Burden of representaion,” Etc…

Those who’ve been following this blog since inception know that these are questions that frequently arise and that we continue to tackle, encouraging others to do the same; not necessarily to reach some consensus on the matter, but, rather to realize that there IS a variance in perspectives among us, as there should be (not some limited, monolithic understanding), and, in turn, learn to embrace and appreciate those differences that are indeed personal.

As I come across them, I’ll post some of those personal points of view expressed by other artists of African descent, and hopefully showcase the wide range of our experiences, and how those experiences manifest themselves in, and influence the art that we individually create.

I’ll from henceforth refer to it as the “Defining Blackness Series;” consider it a companion series to Jasmin’s fantastic ongoing “Finding The New Black” series.

Yinka Shonibare is a 47-year old British-Nigerian conceptual artist, who explores issues of race and class through a range of media that includes sculpture, painting, photography, and installation art. At the age of 19, he became seriously ill with a rare viral infection which attacked his spine and left him temporarily paralyzed. His theatrically exuberant work, with its signature use of headless mannequins and African fabrics, has been featured museums worldwide.

The exhibitions usually include a combo of paintings, sculptures, large-scale installations, photographs and films.

Here’s a worthwhile passage from an interview with Shonibare, courtesy of the New York Times, which I believe contributes to our never-ending discussion on how to define “black art,” a “black aesthetic,” “blackness” etc… Below, Shonibare recalls a moment of creative clarity on the matter, one that resembles my own experience:

The seminal moment in Mr. Shonibare’s artistic formation, however, was kindled by an encounter at Byam Shaw [School of Art in London] during a period when he was “making art about Perestroika.”

One day his tutor confronted him . “Why are you making work about Perestroika?” the tutor, a white Briton, asked. “You are African, aren’t you? Why don’t you make authentic African art?”

At first Mr. Shonibare was taken aback. “I tried to figure out what he meant by authentic African art,” he said. “I didn’t know how to be authentic. What would I do if I was being authentic?”

Born in England in 1962 when his father was studying law there, Mr. Shonibare was raised biculturally. His family returned to Nigeria when he was 3 but kept a house in South London, where he spent summers. Mr. Shonibare grew up in Lagos singing “London Bridges” and watching “Sesame Street.” He spoke Yoruba at home, English at school. He felt privileged, not disadvantaged.

“I didn’t feel inferior to anyone,” he said, adding, with a laugh, “If anything, I felt they were inferior to me.” 

But the tutor saw him as “someone of African origin, and there are things associated with that,” Mr. Shonibare said.

“I should have actually understood all along that there is a way in which one is perceived, and there’s no getting away from it. And I realized that if I didn’t deal with it, I would just be described forever as a black artist who doesn’t make work about being black.”

Right then, Mr. Shonibare said, he found his artistic raison d’être.

“I realized what I’d really have to deal with was the construction of stereotypes, and that’s what my work would be about.” […] “My tutor wanted me to be pure African,” Mr. Shonibare said “I wanted to show I live in a world which is vast and take in other influences, in the way that any white artist has been able to do for centuries.”

And I’d add that this is a point of contention for many – being able to create just as freely, without the so-called “burden of representation” white artist don’t have to feel loaded with.

Here he is discussing his background, his “post-racial” work, and his disability, on PBS’s Art 21, a television series on contemporary art.

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I've always been bothered by the concept of "Black Authenticity" in our creative pursuits. I always view "Black Authenticity" as performing/presenting staid cultural tropes to amuse and entertain "white" folks. What makes it so bad is that we have internalize "Black Authenticity" to such a point that we've limited our own creativity and world view. Our environment is what informs our creativity, whatever that may be. My attitude is this if your parent(s) is/are Black, you've been raised by Black caretakers and create original works of art (not art from a particular tradition adhering strictly to a set of it's aesthetic criteria) then it's Black art –period. Don't want to go into the nuances and of my point. But yeah, I don't think of "shuckin' and jivin'" for "white folks" and limited thinking "Negroes" as the litmus test for defining Black art.


As soon as I read Perestroika, I chuckled recalling my father talking out loud about it, just like he'd talk about random events around the world like if it were a game of basketball..just because he loves world history. Which is why I appreciate Shonibare's sentiments. The world is all around you; it's up to you to explore it if you have the passion to do so. We don't have to limit ourselves to knowledge/art expression of our ethnicity/culture alone. That doesn't mean you'll stop being Black, or White or whatever for that matter. Great post!

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