Yinka Shonibare: The battle of Trafalgar

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

His ship in a bottle will be sharing the fourth plinth in London's most famous square with Antony Gormley's soapbox. But who is Yinka Shonibare? Hannah Duguid meets him

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."

Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice