After winding its way through the narrow streets of East London, a taxi drops us at the metal doorway of a rather nondescript brick building with the words Sunbury House in large letters on the façade. We’ve arrived at Yinka Shonibare’s studio to interview the artist and create a film to promote his upcoming exhibition, Yinka Shonibare MBE: Magic Ladders.
The ground floor is a large space devoted to guest projects including exhibitions, performances, and events. Upstairs, the sunny, smallish studio serves as the artist’s office and creative hub. It’s filled with fabrics of every hue and pattern, taxidermy, drawings, books, and a large calendar showing exhibitions and social engagements. Proudly displayed is Shonibare’s Member of the British Empire award, from Queen Elizabeth II. Many of the objects in the studio are identifiable from his art: a white owl on a string circles eerily above a bookshelf, a fox stares at a doorway. Nothing is unintentional; everything is part of the magic.
Yinka is confined to a wheelchair because of a virus that he contracted at the age of 18, which left him paralyzed from the neck down. Over the years he has made a remarkable recovery; he can now move parts of his body and draw. He can’t work every day, and continues physical therapy to help him maintain his strength. Beyond drawing, Shonibare conceptualizes his work and works with a circle of artists who carry out his ideas. His studio practice is specific and intricate. When we come in, Yinka’s assistants are preparing for him to arrive for the day. One is cutting pieces of fabric that will be pasted onto drawings, another is negotiating dates for projects that will happen in the space downstairs, another assistant is organizing images for approval. Across the street is the painting studio where three more studio artists attach bling to toys, stretch canvases, and cover wooden forms with thick coats of paint in stylized swirls according to a set of drawings on the wall. Yinka dictates how each object will look, the exact dimensions, and materials, and his assistants are very clear that they are carrying out the work that Yinka has conceived. Nothing leaves the studio without his approval.
We work all morning taking background shots for our film. Shonibare arrives in his state-of-the-art motorized wheelchair (Later I get a demonstration of the sophisticated controls that allow him to rise up to standing level and swivel) and gets right down to the business at hand. He’s working on a set of drawings for a commission from a collector in Hong Kong, and has to pick the fabrics that will be attached to the piece. Yinka is focused and relaxed as we film; he explains what drew him to the Barnes and gives his rationale for the signature piece of the Barnes exhibition Yinka Shonibare MBE: Magic Ladders. With a smile he notes that the Barnes exhibition is “very bookish;” the rungs of the ladders in the commission are made from books, and many of works chosen for the exhibition are related to the theme of education.
Later that afternoon, we head down to the first floor to watch a guest production, a play in the Africa series called A Wing, A Prey, A Song, by Ros Martin, which uses projections, music and dialog to illuminate issues of migration. That evening is a dinner dedicated to the art of Kurt Schwitters. It’s a hilarious, participatory event where guests are asked to design their food and the Master of Ceremonies narrates the evening with Dada poetry and song. Yinka presides at the head table, surrounded by artists, friends, and collectors. Other events in the series have been devoted to Louise Bourgeois, David Lynch, and William S. Burroughs. It’s a long day, but Yinka is gracious and funny and full of insights about every aspect of the program.
I’m fortunate to have been able to spend time with Yinka, and look forward to seeing him again for our opening celebration on January 24. It’s a public event; we invite you all to join us!