by Jeffrey Bussmann
through April 21, 2014
Britain’s colonial legacy is ever-present in the work of Yinka Shonibare MBE. His exhibition Magic Ladders at the Barnes Foundation temporarily provides counterweight to the heavily continental-Europe tilt of Dr. Barnes’s collection. The Belgians, Dutch, French, Italians, Portuguese, and Spanish were all in the colonization game too, even if by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries artists’ work lacked visual examples of it (Paul Gauguin being a notable exception). Nowhere in Magic Ladders is this more pronounced than in the work Scramble for Africa (2003), which in this context metaphorically seats Shonibare as the Afro-British representative at the table with Barnes’ stable of European masters.
An equally interesting and lesser discussed work in the exhibition is Victorian Philanthropist’s Parlour (1996-97). It is constructed as the titular parlor, a room of Victorian elegance and restraint, lacking the decapitated mannequin forms that have become synonymous with Shonibare’s output. Anthropomorphic forms appear only in the printed wallpaper, drapes, and upholstery. An immediate comparison comes to mind with Renée Green’s well-known Mise-en-Scène: Commemorative Toile (1992) coincidentally created at the Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia. Green’s stately room lures the viewer in with its genteelness only to sucker punch him or her with disturbing scenes of American slavery embedded in the print design. Hers is a work that principally points to an abhorrent past, while his both nods to history and draws a line to the present.
In order to understand Victorian Philanthropist’s Parlour one must reach back to the definition of “philanthropy” in the Victorian Era (Britain) or the Gilded Age (America). Names of super wealthy industrialists spring to mind: Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Vanderbilt. In Britain the practitioners would largely have been Lords. Theoretically these men were giving back to the working classes, upon whose backs they had accumulated vast fortunes. The arrangement provided a way for these elite men to appear generous publicly. The tradition has continued into the present in ever more sophisticated manners. But there are other publicly visible avenues for the mega-rich to sink money, or some might say to launder it. Professional football—which has become the playground of Russian natural resource barons, fabulously spendthrift Emiratis, and even Indian poultry mongers—is one of them. Collecting art is another.
The influx of eastern cash and foreign ownership of football clubs was not yet primarily the case in the mid-1990s when Shonibare created the work. However, football’s conversion away from its earliest industrial roots was nearly completed. Many of the teams that emerged in the latter part of the nineteenth century were formed by members of trade unions. As late as the 1980s football in Britain was still overwhelmingly considered a sport of the working classes, not to mention being played mostly by whites. It was not until 1978 that Viv Anderson, in the face of vicious racism, became the first black man to play for the English national team in a starting eleven role.
Subsequent years saw a rapid rise in British teams beginning to acquire non-white players of African and South American nationalities. Naturally, most of them came from places colonized by countries with strong traditions of football. Colonization took hold in an innovative form, recruiting new fans to British teams with the top players from their own nations. The player Kanu, widely regarded as the best ever to come from Nigeria, immediately won millions of new fans for the London team Arsenal when he signed there in 1999. Even when he left the team five years later, the novice fans remained loyal.
So what might one make of Shonibare’s parlor for an imagined, anachronistic philanthropist? His empire is built on the natural skill and success of these African men who take the pitch in search of footballing glory. It is almost as though they are collected as trophies in their own right, replacing a gallery of mounted game from the savannahs. Today fans are won over not only by successful pursuit of championships and trophies, but also the battle to sign and retain top talent, spurring sales of official jerseys and branded merchandise. In a changed world the philanthropist has adapted his tools of dominance and calculated benevolence.