When Yinka Shonibare accepted his MBE from the Prince of Wales in 2005, there was a certain irony to the situation. Shonibare's work explores British history – and colonialism in particular. Born in Britain to Nigerian parents, he uses traditional African fabrics in his work, which express the entangled relationship between Africa and Europe. The cloth is used as critique of the history of Empire, yet an MBE brought Shonibare to the heart of the Establishment. He wasn't mocking the award by accepting it – he is genuinely proud of it – although he feels there is a critical element to his attitude.
"I don't know whether I am collaborating with or critiquing the idea of the award. There's an ambivalence within me," he says. "It's quite a common thing for people to challenge the Establishment and also to want to be a part of it. I don't want to alienate myself from the society I live in."
Aged 45, Shonibare has just been awarded the commission to make a work for Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth, putting him again at the heart of the Establishment. This new work is also concerned with the history of the British Empire and how its repercussions are reflected in the society in which we live today, although in this work Shonibare has taken a more positive view of history. The piece, Nelson's Ship in a Bottle, will be a large-scale model of Horatio Nelson's ship, The Victory, from which he commanded the battle of Trafalgar, fought against the French in 1805.
Brightly coloured African textiles will be used for the sails of the ship, which will be contained within a large glass bottle. There will be solar panels inside the bottle creating energy to light it up at night, making it an enchanting addition to central London.
Shonibare won't reveal the method he's using to get the ship inside the bottle, as he believes there must be an element of magic to the final piece, but he will say how the idea for the work came about, and how it is a continuation of themes in his past work.
"I was thinking about the history of Nelson and Trafalgar. That battle gave Britain control over the seas and with that they were able to build the Empire. I thought about contemporary Britain, multicultural Britain, and how we now have this very diverse society and how it is a result of Empire. The history of Trafalgar does have a relationship with current society. Using African textiles for the sails is a way of celebrating the multiculturalism of Britain today, celebrating it under the banner of a national hero," he says, from his home in Mile End in East London.
British historical themes have featured frequently in Shonibare's work and he has a self-confessed obsession with Victoriana. One of his most famous works is entitled Diary of a Victorian Dandy – a take on the dandyism of Oscar Wilde – in which he dressed up as an elegant young society gentleman and had himself photographed surrounded by fashionable admirers. The incongruity of a black man in this costume was startling, which was precisely the idea.
He has recreated the settings of paintings at the core of British identity, such as Gainsborough's Mr and Mrs Andrews and Sir Henry Raeburn's painting The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch, although in Shonibare's versions – Mr and Mrs Andrews Without Their Heads and Reverend on Ice – he used headless dummies instead of people, and dressed them in Africanised textiles, purchased in the markets of London. They are deliberately unsettling, these familiar figures made strange and grotesque.
As Shonibare's work straddles two cultures, so has his life. "My work is about colonialism, about my own colonial background. Whether my background has been an obstacle or an advantage is interesting. In many ways I have turned what might have been a negative thing into a positive. Difference is not necessarily a disadvantage; it can actually be a plus depending on how you choose to work with it," he says.
He was born in London in 1962 but went back to Nigeria aged three to be educated. He comes from a respectable middle-class family: his father was a lawyer, and when Shonibare returned to England in the late 1970s, aged 17, he was sent to boarding school in Dorset, which he did not enjoy. "At that time in Britain, all the food seemed to have been boiled in water. I liked spicy food. Boarding school was miserable and the weather was grey and cold. It was difficult to adjust. There were racist comedians on television. It's quite amazing to see how Britain has moved on," he says.
Shonibare knew early on that he wanted to be an artist. "I think now I would quite enjoy being a lawyer, like my father, but then I was a rebel and wanted to be different from him. I knew that it wouldn't be an easy life but there's this compulsion to do creative things. Logic didn't really come into it," he says.
His career ambitions were seriously stalled when he contracted a debilitating virus at the age of 19. He was ill for almost three years and left paralysed. He had to learn to walk again and still struggles. His left side is weak and he needs a stick to get around. As his strength returned, he completed his foundation course at Wimbledon Collage of Art, and then went to Byam Shaw School of Art, followed by an MA at Goldsmiths. When he was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2004, he was already an established artist, who had shown at the Tate and had his work written about by the press and students of art history.
He believes that when he was starting out there was more discrimination towards black artists, but feels that this is no longer relevant. He says: "Who gives a toss if you are black or pink? What matters now is that you make good work. And if being black is your concern, then make good work about it. I'm not suggesting that there has not been discrimination, but things have changed so much and these young people are not the children of Victorians. If you're not so good, it's your own fault."