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Pierre Hardy, Oh Roy!  2015

Photo Courteys of


Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA), Fake Death Picture (The Death of Chatterton–Henry Wallis) (detail), 2011, digital chromogenic print, Yale Center for British Art, Lee MacCormick Edwards Foundation and Friends of British Art Fund, © Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA)

Yinka Shonibare


By Deanna Sirlin

I first saw Yinka Shonibare’s work at Documenta 11 in 2002. Okwui Enwezor curated this edition of this exhibition that included the Nigerian British artist. There was a delicious shock factor for me in his headless mannequins dressed in brightly patterned cloths posed in staged vignettes bending over one another in sexual poses on old traveling trunks, with a bright green horse carriage suspended in the air above them. It was a historical diorama in full scale of an eighteenth-century scene that had gone wild. This subversive staging, and the brightly patterned fabric that clothed the figures in Gallantry and Criminal Conversation, brought Shonibare’s work to international attention.


Shonibare has gone on to explore multiple ways of dressing and redressing his mannequins to play with the political aspects of post-colonial relationships to class and race. Shonibare’s cloths are purchased in London’s Brixton Market and are often made by the Dutch to replicate Indonesian patterns and simulated batik designs. The Indonesian market found them too inauthentic, so these cloths are now sold to the West African Market and are also being produced in the UK (in Manchester) for the British Market.




Pre-Vulcanized Shoe, 1830. Photo: George Hornbein.

Yinka Shonibare Gallantery and Criminal Conversation, 2002 Documenta 11

The implications of patterned cloth and its fusion of nationalities has become a signature commentary for Shonibare. Clothing his figures in these costumes has allowed Shonibare to create works that call into question the many political implications of the mixture of global commodity and culture.


However, it is not issues of class and post-colonialism that I found interesting in the exhibition of Shonebare’s work on view at the Yale Center for British Art in the newly restored exquisite Louis Kahn building, but Shonibare’s use of the Henry Wallis’s painting The Death of Chatterton (1856). Artists have been looking at each other’s art and repurposing it since long before the ideas of appropriation and Post Modernism, which had their heyday in the 1980’s. One only has to look at the small sketch Rembrandt made at an auction when looking at Raphael’s Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione. Rembrandt later used the compositional device of turning the figure in space with the elbow of the sitter tilted out towards the canvas in his self-portrait etching of 1639. Is Rembrandt casting himself as a nobleman, or is it the formal relationship of the figure to the canvas that he seeks to replicate? Perhaps it is a little bit of both.


Sketch after Raphael's Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, 1639 Drawing

Albertina, Vienna


Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione 1514-15 

Louvre Museum, Paris

Can one say the same for Shonibare and his use of the Wallis painting of Henry Chatterton? A beautifully painted small version of The Death of Chatterton is in the Permanent Collection of the Yale Center for British Art and hangs in a gallery of nineteenth-century British painting separate from Shonibare’s gallery show. The original full-scale painting is in the Tate Collection in the UK; Wallis was known to paint multiple versions of his popular works. Shonibare’s work Fake Death Picture (The Death of Chatterton-Henry Wallis) (2011) is a digital chromogenic print that recreates the Wallis painting. Shonibare clothes the male reclining figure in his signature wax cloth in a shirt with a mixture of fiery orange and brilliant green with pantaloons of turquoise, yellow and black and white swirls of pattern. His figure has bright orange tights, a white powdered wig, and is lying on the bed in the pose of Chatterton after he had committed suicide by ingesting poison. Chatterton was a poet whose suicide, memorialized by Wallis, became a symbol of the artist’s struggle for recognition.

Henry Wallis, The Death of Chatterton, 1856

Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Shonibare has remade this staged drama with a wonderful mastery of the details of Wallis’s work. The windows centered behind the figure are of the same leaded casement type; the northern light is clear and simpatico to the painting; there is a cityscape in the distance, which is perhaps London. But Shonibare has recast the poet as Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson. He reinterprets the Wallis work in a scene staged to be photographed that uses the painting as a direct model but in recasting the figure as the hero of the British people he is changing the scenario from the suicidal poet to the sea captain “who won the greatest victory in British history.” He makes us realize it is Lord Nelson as the figure in his photograph has one arm. Although Nelson did not commit suicide, the photograph is still a suicide pictures as the symbols are all still there, the candle is recently burnt out, the torn manuscript is on the floor, the hand grasping the pieces, the poison bottle askew on the floor.     

Shonibare in using the Wallis painting is being a kind of neo-romantic artist but maintains his wit and cynicism. By titling the photo Fake Death Picture Shonibare calls into question the whole romantic vision of the artist. By complicating his analogy and replacing the body of the poet with Admiral Nelson, a great hero of the British Empire he is questioning our ideas about heroes, particularly about the significance of an iconic figure’s death. He compares the suicide of an unrecognized artist with the heroic death of a military figure. They share the common element that both became iconic through their respective demises.


In addition to the photo, Shonibare’s exhibition at Yale includes a number of other objects that appropriate and reposition Admiral Nelson. On view are a ship-in-a-bottle replica of the HMS Victory, the ship Nelson commanded against Napoleon’s forces at the Battle of Trafalgar and on which he was killed by a French marksman, plus two vitrines each with a wax patterned cloth version of Nelson’s wife Fanny’s dress and Lord Nelson’s jacket.

Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA)

Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle (maquette), 2007

plastic, Dutch wax-printed cotton textile, cork, acrylic and glass bottle, courtesy of the artist, James Cohan Gallery, New York, and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London,

© Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA)

Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA)

Nelson’s Jacket, 2011,

Dutch wax-printed cotton textile, fiberglass mannequin, wood and glass vitrine, courtesy of the artist and James Cohan Gallery, New York,

© Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA)

Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA),

Fanny’s Dress, 2011,

Dutch wax-printed cotton textile, fiberglass mannequin, wood and glass vitrine, courtesy of the artist and James Cohan Gallery, New York,

© Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA)

Shonibare is both elevating and mocking the British admiration for Lord Nelson. He has put his ship in a bottle like a souvenir or a high-end crafts project. The title of the photo, Fake Death Picture, calls into question the entire myth-making of the romantic story both of the Wallis picture and his own vision of Nelson.  


The ship in the bottle came about when Shonibare was asked to create a public work for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, where Shonibare liked to feed the pigeons and where the famous monument Nelson’s Column stands. Shonibare recreated Nelson’s ship using his signature patterned cloth on the sails and putting the ship wittily in a bottle. The work at Yale is the scale model from his presentation, done before the large-scale work as a maquette, rather than a copy such as Wallis regularly produced. Shonibare’s work has humor but it is also serious in that he is subverting the symbol of this battleship that changed the course of history with Lord Nelson at the helm.


Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA)

Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, 2010

from the Fourth Plinth Commission in Trafalgar Square, London

fiberglass, steel, brass, resin, UV ink on printed cotton textile, linen rigging, acrylic, and wood, Collection of the National Maritime Museum, London, © Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA), image courtesy of James Cohan Gallery, New York, and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London

Artists have been making work that refers to other works of art for centuries. The Post-Modern appropriation of the 1980’s is past its heyday, and most appropriation has become a big yawn. However, there is a difference in Shonibare’s creation of this suite of images that tell a version of Nelson’s life. Shonibare not only changes and challenges the meaning of this hero of the British Empire. He also repositions himself as a British Artist remaking this history for his own purposes. He is using a language of pattern that signifies for him both beauty and the African diaspora African. Now that he has matured as an artist he no longer has to incite us with sexually and politically loaded images but is engaging with the complexity of what a it means to him to be English.

Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA),

Photograph by Marcus Leith, © Royal Academy of Arts, London

Deanna Sirlin is an artist. She is Editor-in-Chief of  The Art Section.


Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA) is on exhibit at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, CT through December 11, 2016.





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