Art, Identity, and Postcolonial Discourse: Hlobo vs. Shonibare

Categories: ArtArtists

In recent years, there has been an increasing interest in the Post-colonialism study. According to Deepika Bahri (1996), "The field of Postcolonial Studies has been gaining prominence since the 1970s". "Some would date its rise in the Western academy from the publication of Edward Said's influential critique of Western constructions of the Orient in his 1978 book, Orientalism" (Bahri 1996).

In summary, this paper is going to explore three points. Firstly the research is going to attempt to examine, analyze, and compare two contemporary African artists namely, Nicholas Hlobo and Yinka Shonibare by beginning with their biographies with consideration to their similarities and differences within their artworks.

Secondly, with reference to Bill Ashcroft et al (2003), this paper will further seek to delve more into the notion of postcolonial in binary to post-colonialism, by distinguishing the difference amongst the two terms. And also pointing out similarities and differences in the artists' artmaking process. Thirdly this paper will furthermore focus on the analysis of works such as, Nicholas Hlobo, Unongayindoda 2004-2005 (Fig.

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1), Izithunzi 2009 (Fig. 2). In comparison to Yinka Shonibare, The swing, 2001 (Fig. 3), Scramble for Africa, 2003 (Fig. 4), in which this dissertation will further seek to compare the ways that either challenge the idea of a postcolonial condition or rather reinforce the notion.

Yinka Shonibare was born in Britain, London in the year 1962 and moved to Lagos, Nigeria at age three. He is currently based in the United Kingdom, which he returned from Nigeria, at the age of 17 to pursue his education (Yinka shonibare, n.d.). A year later (18) he contracted transverse myelitis , which resulted him to be paralyzed on one side of his body.

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Following his Fine Art studies at Byam Shaw School of Art and Goldsmiths, University of London, where he obtained a MFA, Yinka Shonibare worked as an arts development officer for Shape Arts. His work deals with issues of colonialism, race, class and cultural identity through his own migration and colonialism experiences (Yinka shonibare, n.d.).

By utilizing media such as; sculpture, painting, installation art as well as photography, film and performance, he described himself as a 'post-colonial' hybrid. One constant throughout his work is brightly colored textiles that are globally viewed as "African fabric". "But actually, the fabrics are not really authentically African the way people think," says Shonibare. "They prove to have a crossbred cultural background quite of their own. And it is the fallacy of that signification that I like. It's the way I view culture, it is an artificial construct" ("Yinka Shonibare Wrapped More Than 200 Books", 2018). "The fabrics are a signifier of the identity of people from Africa and the African diaspora, but more importantly, how they encounter with Europe", said (Shonibare [sp], 2018). "The textiles I use were actually produced by the Dutch and then sold to West Africans, yet now they are known as markers of African identity", Shonibare further adds that, he is very interested in the colonial relationships between Africa and Europe, and the fabrics have rather become a metaphor for that ("Yinka Shonibare Wrapped More Than 200 Books", 2018).

Nicholas Hlobo was born in the Eastern Cape, South Africa and is currently based in Johannesburg. In 2002 Nicholas Hlobo obtained a Fine art degree from the Technikon Witwatersrand, which is now the University of Johannesburg. Similarly to Shonibare, he creates large sculptural installations and also works on paper. But unlike Shonibare, who is mostly inspired or motivated by issues of colonialism alongside race and class, Hlobo explores ethnicity his sexual identity and masculinity. Utilizing material such as ribbon, and rubber detritus, his works depict ovarian spaces, phalluses , ovarian spaces, and other bodily references and sexual innuendos . "Hlobo mines post-apartheid South Africa and his own Xhosa culture, drawing from Xhosa language for his titles" (Nicholas Hlobo[sp]: 2018). Self-interrogations of identity and self, and ethnicity runs throughout his pieces, and notions of gender and masculinity are reflected through a visual and tangible contrast in the materials with which he works. (Nicholas Hlobo[sp]: 2018).

A similar approach towards how these two artists go about producing their work, is that many of the materials that they use serve as visual metaphors for a range of cultural wonders. "Hlobo and his works are not only named after particular ritualistic practices but consciously recall the rich history and tradition of the Xhosa culture" (Nicholas Hlobo: 2018). However, with both artists "Mining" Western ideologies within literature and art history, Shonibare asks what constitutes our collective contemporary identity today? Having described himself as a 'post-colonial' hybrid , Shonibare questions the meaning of cultural and national identities. Shonibare considers himself a post-colonial hybrid as a result of him being Nigerian yet born and living in The United-Kingdom.

One of the main features of imperial oppression, also, is control over language (Ashcroft et al, 2004; 7). Hlobo instead always titles his work in Xhosa, his native language, challenging the whole concept of how, the aim of colonization in the first place was to impose ones culturelanguagemeaning onto the Other, therefore making this act, postcolonial by not subjugating himself to 'English'. As Bill Ashcroft states in his book (Key Concepts in Postcolonial Studies. 2004), "the discussion of postcolonial literature which follows is largely a discussion of the process by which the language, with its power and the writing, with its significance of its authority has been wrested from the dominant European culture" (Ashcroft et al 2004; 7).

Figure 1, Nicholas Hlobo, Unongayindoda (2006), consists of three pieces; Imtyibilizi xa yomile 2006, In a while 2006, Boots from the performance Igqirha lendlela 2005. The title, Unongayindoda translates to, 'One who almost looks like a woman'. Imtyibilizi xa yomile means 'slippery when dry', because when the material was being cut, it was slippery. Later he made a discovery that the same feeling is similar to sex without lubricant amongst men, 'dry sex'. Hlobo made the corset to be large in scale, as if one would wear it (the dress), but at the same time he made it impossible to be worn, as it is closed at the top. As much as the structure seems Masculine it also has feminine qualities. "The dress is like an octopus which can close or open its tentacles".(Nicholas Hlobo 2006). Hlobo (2006) further adds, "Imagine a performance in which a drag queen becomes elongated, then lowered again, so the dress opens".

The Organza material that is used as a drape or a curtain-like material is usually used to create costumes for drag queens. The reason for putting the concept onto the gay culture, is because he felt like drag queens are disappearing, as gay men don't dress like women anymore. (Hlobo 2006) references that when he was starting to come out, as a young man there were more men who would be seen wearing make-up and dresses compared to now. Through his work he celebrates the idea of men acting like women, although, he claims, that some of those men truly believed that they were women. Overall the artwork is meant to be a celebration of femininity, the aesthetics of the culture and its transparency (Hlobo 2006[sp]). Nicholas Hlobo describes the fabric used to be similar to when you are in water, as water is known to conceal but at the same time you can see through it. It has a copper colour with a blue thread in it. The skirt looks like it is almost on fire. "In the shadows, depending on the light, the blue is evident. Blue movies and the gay magazine, Blue Boy, are other associations" (Hlobo 2006[sp]). The materials are synthetic and man-made. While at the bottom of the dress, instead of lace, he made holes in the rubber to give it a lacy effect.

Figure 1 (Unongayindoda 2006) as well as Umtshotsho 2009 (fig.2), which is a whole exhibition, featuring, Izithunzi 2009, According to Hlobo 2006, 'Umtshotsho' signifies the rituals that accompany the transition from youth to adulthood. As Hlobo further explains, the term refers to a traditional party for young people. "The scene is umtshotsho, a traditional Xhosa youth party that encourages young girls and pre-initiation boys to safely explore their curiosity of adulthood by playing at war and love through performances of stick-fighting and non-penetrative 'thigh-sex' (ukusoma)" (Writing: Reviews & Think Pieces, 2017). Umtshotsho is a tradition, though, that Hlobo has apparently never went through. Hlobo claims that it is something that he does not really understand, but has heard about through stories that submerge his characters in myth as they stand poised for movement like ethereal underwater sea creatures (Writing: Reviews & Think Pieces, 2017).

The word 'izithunzi' means shadows. As such, the characters that seem to move and dance around the viewer, "create an intangible masquerade, a performance that cannot be grasped" (Hlobo [sp] 2017). "I am looking for the source of the shadow" mentions Hlobo, "but it keeps moving. The thing is moving away and I am chasing it". (Hlobo 2017) adds that, the thing that keeps moving, he explains, is his ethnic culture, a culture that he does not fully understand, for, like all traditions, it is fluid, fleeting, twirling, dancing. "It is a culture that he fears losing, especially when he catches himself dreaming in English, but it is also a culture that, in the past, drove him underground, hence the dreamlike quality of an underwater scene" (Writing: Reviews & Think Pieces, 2017).

An evident postcolonial act, can be witnessed in Shonibare's sculptures that he, since the 1990s has transformed well-known European paintings into three-dimensional tableaux vivants with a twist. Figure 3 The Swing (after Fragonard) is according to (Yinka Shonibare MBE, 2010), one of Shonibare's best-known sculptural works. "Inspired by Fragonard's 1767 painting The Swing, it depicts the sensual abandon of a seemingly privileged young woman at her leisure. The woman's airborne slipper, kicked high like an exclamation point as she swings back and forth before her lover, underlines the decadence of the original painting. A garter is exposed beneath her billowing dress and, scandalously, she is assisted in her tryst by a priest who obligingly pushes the swing",(Yinka Shonibare MBE, 2010). Shonibare was inspired by Fragonard's paintings and sculptures that highly depicts and characterized by their lavish depictions of the upper class at play, "pursuing love and enjoying the material comforts of their wealth" (Shonibare MBE, 2010). The reason the sculpture is depicted without its head, is because Shonibare generally presents his mannequins without their heads which creates a playful reference to the beheading of the aristocracy during the French Revolution and the redistribution of power and land. He has also stated that the absence of heads in his sculptures eliminates "direct connotations of race or individual identity" (Shonibare, 2010).

Scramble for Africa (Fig. 4) is a "pivotal work for Shonibare in its exploration of late Victorian England and its territorial expansion into Africa during the 1880s" (Shonibare MBE, 2010). Shonibare's work (fig. 4) depicts this historic get-together, showing various statesmen huddled around a table with a large map of Africa, eagerly staking their claims, as seen by their gestures. In Shonibare's interpretation, the heads of state are characteristically headless and equally mindless in their hunger for what Belgian King Leopold II called, "a slice of this magnificent cake" (Shonibare 2010).

Scramble for Africa (Fig. 4) is showcased onto a raised platform, giving it a heightened sense of visual drama. Like actors on a stage, the headless mannequins, which are seated in a table similar to those in boardrooms, giving them a sense of leadership, gesticulate to one another as they are in discussion for the riches of the continent. Assumable the African Continent, because of the wax fabric. Shonibare (2010) says, "Theatricality is certainly a device in my work, it is a way of setting the stage, it is also a fiction, a hyper-real, theatrical device that enables you to re-imagine events from history. Scramble for Africa examines how history repeats itself and when I was making it I was really thinking about American imperialism and the need in the West for resources such as oil and how this pre-empts the annexation of different parts of the world" (Shonibare MBE, 2010).

Another similarity between Nicholas Hlobo and Yinka Shonibare is that they make work expressing elements of their own identity. Yet the difference would be the fact that Shonibare, unlike Hlobo, also deals particularly with the colonial relationship of the United Kingdom to Nigeria.

The following conclusions can be drawn from the present study; the artists mentioned above artworks and their content are altogether extremely influenced by the impact of colonization on postcolonial history, economic system, and tradition, the cultural productions of colonized societies, feminism and postcolonialism, organization for marginalized human beings, and the state of the postcolony in modern-day financial and cultural contexts, capitalism and the marketplace, environmental issues, and the connection among aesthetics and politics in literature are some of the other distinguished topics inside the research. This paper successfully attempted to link the artist's artworks with differences as well as similarities. The paper started off with an overview of their biographies followed by the themes they deal with including how similar their creative process is, in terms of its contexts. This essay went on further to analyze their artworks; Nicholas Hlobo, Unongayindoda 2004-2005 (Fig. 1), Izithunzi 2009 (Fig. 2). In comparison to Yinka Shonibare, The swing, 2001 (Fig. 3), Scramble for Africa, 2003 (Fig. 4) attempting to compare ways in which they either enforce or challenge the notion of a single postcolonial condition.

Returning to the hypothesis posed at the beginning, from a scholarly differentiation of 'Post-colonialism and postcolonial', in which according to (Ashcroft et al., 2000:169) states that, "Post-colonialism is now used in wide and diverse ways to include the study and analysis of European territorial conquests, the various institutions of European colonialisms, the discursive operations of empire, the subtleties of subject construction in colonial discourse and the resistance of those subjects". Whereas the latter, Postcolonial, in other words suggests the world reimagined, in which the normal order of things is undone. The artists introduce a certain wit and lightness to subjects that formerly had been heavy with remorse and guilt as a result from colonialism, as seen in their subject matters.

Updated: Nov 30, 2023
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Art, Identity, and Postcolonial Discourse: Hlobo vs. Shonibare. (2019, Dec 06). Retrieved from

Art, Identity, and Postcolonial Discourse: Hlobo vs. Shonibare essay
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