Most of the time, museum exhibitions are planned several years in advance. On rare occasions, a serendipitous opportunity for a last-minute addition comes along. Such is the case at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, where a group of sculptures by Yinka Shonibare MBE are ensconced in the Astor period galleries in an unanticipated and marvelous little show. • Shonibare is a much-buzzed-about British artist whose work has been well known in Europe for many years. (He takes such pride in being named Member of the Order of the British Empire that he has attached its abbreviation, MBE, to his name.) A major exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum that also traveled to the Smithsonian Institution in 2009 brought him wider attention in the United States. He's most famous for life-sized, headless mannequins dressed in period European outfits made from African-style prints.
The seven sculptures here, gathered under the title "Mother and Father Worked Hard So I Can Play," are from that show. The Ringling did a fast changeover in the two galleries, emptying their usual contents of antiquities and decorative arts for the installation. We're lucky that they could accommodate the works and provide us the opportunity to see such an important contemporary artist.
Shonibare (pronounced shon-eh-BAR-eh) was born in London in 1962. His Nigerian parents returned to their homeland when he was a toddler but returned often to England. When he was 18 and starting art school there, he contracted a spinal cord inflammation that left him paralyzed. After years of rehabilitation, he was able to walk, though the illness left him permanently weakened and he still often uses a wheelchair. But he was strong enough to return to his art studies and early on found his aesthetic voice.
Shonibare, a conceptual artist who also works in other mediums, explores in all of them issues of multiculturalism and stereotypes. That sounds broad and nebulous, but he gives us specific points of reference, calling himself a "postcolonial."
He dresses up his fiberglass mannequins in lavishly made Victorian clothes that are instantly recognized as such. The surprise is the fabric: bright batiks that look more African than drawing room. It's a juxtaposition that makes obvious note of the empire that was built on trade routes that circled the globe and sought to imprint English culture on the rest of the world during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The irony is that the prints widely worn by Africans even today and assumed to be African are not. Shonibare found the fabric years ago at a shop specializing in African textiles and discovered to his surprise that the technique was developed in Holland in the 1800s and exported to Africa, where it became popular. And that the designs were actually Javanese. That cross-pollination adds another layer to the work.
In the original exhibition, the figures were often arranged in scenarios that emulated famous paintings. He included his own paintings that riffed on older ones, too, as well as photographs of staged scenes from earlier eras. The figures in the paintings and photographs usually have heads and they are often a combination of black and white costumed characters mixing as equals in fancy gatherings that would have been fantasy 200 years ago.
The sculptures in the Ringling group are all children and, without the context of the original, larger show, don't have the same impact and edge. They're more charming than anything and their lack of heads doesn't have the violence sometimes suggested in his adult figures. They play with marbles and a marionette, skip rope and do a handstand.
There may be a gentle irony but, as in all of Shonibare's art, there's no anger. He was raised in privilege and never thought much about racial identity until he was in his 20s and a teacher asked him why he wasn't making African art since he was African.
He realizes now that stereotypes are inevitable and certainly makes use of them. But he's more interested in beauty. That's why he's an artist.
The exhibition is part of a new initiative at the Ringling to showcase more modern and contemporary art. Don't worry, none of the beloved Baroques are going into storage. You might recall that for many summers, the museum has organized a show of its more recent works in the permanent collection for one of its special-exhibitions galleries.
Matthew McLendon, the new associate curator of modern and contemporary art, says the works in the permanent collection from those eras now number 4,000. So part of the museum's newer wing will be dedicated to showing them in rotation.
At the moment, we're treated to a nice survey of abstract art, the 20th century movement that continues to baffle and daunt some people. McLendon's thoughtful arrangement of the several dozen paintings, prints and sculpture gives us a sense of its place in the art history continuum, linking it to impressionism, surrealism and, yes, representational art. Some of it has never been exhibited at the museum before.
The education department offers an artful component for family interaction, especially take-apart and put-together sculptures mimicking ones by Gabriel Kohn and Louise Nevelson.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.