- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 15, 2009

“Off with their heads” could be the slogan of the theatrical art created by British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare. His signature mannequins are decapitated as if they had been sent to the guillotine, an apt image given Mr. Shonibare’s fascination with the era of Marie Antoinette.

The headless dummies are dressed in 18th- and 19th-century-style costumes made of contemporary fabrics associated with Africa to challenge conventional ideas about racial and cultural identity.

It’s a clever conceit that appeals conceptually and visually, but eventually wears thin in the exhibition of the 47-year-old artist’s work at the National Museum of African Art. This midcareer survey, awkwardly dispersed on two floors, repeats the same themes with nearly as many life-size mannequins as displayed at Madame Tussaud’s.

“Yinka Shonibare MBE” was organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Australia, where the exhibit debuted before traveling to the Brooklyn Museum earlier this year. The “MBE” refers to Member of the Order of the British Empire awarded to the artist in 2005.

Born in Britain to Nigerian parents who moved the family back to their native land, Mr. Shonibare returned to England to attend art school and start his career. He seems to have chosen to work with Dutch-wax fabrics based on their similarities to his cross-cultural background.

The now fashionable textiles (Balenciaga and Gucci used them in recent collections) were inspired by Indonesian batiks, made in the Netherlands and England, and sold in West Africa.

Their brightly colored prints inject exuberance into tableaux based on historical figures and famous paintings from 18th-century Europe. Introducing the upper-level portion of the exhibit is “The Swing (After Fragonard),” a sculpture based on the 1767 French painting of a woman tossing her shoe into the air. The major departure from the original is her vivid dress, patterned in Coco Chanel’s interlocking initials.

Vignettes of economist Adam Smith and mathematician Jean Le Rond d’Alembert follow on the lower floor. The Enlightenment thinkers are depicted with physical disabilities to suggest the crippling effects of their reasoned thinking on the world. The pieces also reference the artist’s partial paralysis from a virus at age 19.

A more compelling installation, “Scramble for Africa,” groups 14 mannequins around a table to recall how the continent was carved up in the 1880s by Europeans seeking claim to its assets. The gesturing figures have current relevance in suggesting greedy bankers or corporate CEOs planning a global takeover.

When they aren’t referring to the specifics of history, Mr. Shonibare’s sculptures lose their bite. “Leisure Lady (with Ocelots),” showing a stylish woman with three wild cats, is nothing more than a 3-D fashion illustration.

“Gallantry and Criminal Conversation,” with its suspended carriage, steamer trunks and mannequins in various sexual positions, aims to poke fun at the decadence of the grand tour, but comes off as a puerile dirty joke (the installation is shielded from direct view by a high wall).

In addition to the adult-themed pieces are sculptures of children. Inside the lower-level gallery, a boy and girl dance atop a shaded globe to represent the precarious balance of civilization as humans continue to toy with Earth’s resources.

From sculpture, Mr. Shonibare has extended his showy figural art into photography and video. In one series of pictures, he plays the character of a Victorian dandy surrounded by white admirers; in another, he assumes the role of Oscar Wilde’s protagonist Dorian Gray.

By inserting himself into the frames, the artist reverses the role of white master and black servant, but the racial messages take a back seat to the absorbing scenes of Victorian England. Mr. Shonibare has a knack for capturing the mood and setting of his historical dramas down to the actors’ makeup.

His videos aren’t as successful in conveying the narrative. “A Masked Ball” borrows its title and story line from the Verdi opera about the assassination of Sweden’s King Carl Gustav III, but the costumed extras hog the spotlight as they perform choreography worthy of a Michael Jackson video.

In “Odile and Odette,” the action is more straightforward. Two ballerinas, one black and one white, perform the princess role from Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” to call attention to the two sides of the character. They dance on opposite sides of a gold frame to appear as the other’s mirrored reflection. As in “A Masked Ball,” the soundtrack records the dancers’ movements rather than the musical score to ground the piece in the physicality of the performance.

In both videos, the brilliant Dutch-wax fabrics remain the center of attention as in the more numerous installations of headless dummies. Mr. Shonibare seems to be following Mark Twain’s celebrated saying “clothes make the man” (or woman) in his art, a theme that becomes formulaic by exhibit’s end.

WHAT: “Yinka Shonibare MBE”
WHERE: National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through March 7
PHONE: 202/633-4600
WEB SITE: www.nmafa.si.edu

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