Yinka Shonibare, MBE
Un Ballo in Maschera (Courtiers V)
Yinka Shonibare, MBE
Un Ballo in Maschera (Courtiers V), 2004
Three mannequins on glass bases, Dutch wax-printed cotton fabric, and leather shoes
170.2 x 304.8 x 182.9 cm (67 x 120 x 72 inches) (overall)
Richard Brown Baker Fund for Contemporary British Art 2005.52
(September 23, 2011 – January 8, 2012)
Shonibare combines elements from his home cultures, Britain and Nigeria, to reflect complex historical relationships and his own dual identity. Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) features eighteenth-century European style costumes made from cloth associated with West Africa. The sculpture is related to Shonibare’s lavish film, also titled after Giuseppe Verdi’s 1859 opera, in which dancers wore these costumes. Both the opera and film contemplate themes of masking and mistaken identities, personally and politically. The complexity of the subject is embedded in the cloth itself. Brightly patterned ‘Dutch-wax fabric’ was originally produced in Holland to imitate Indonesian batik, later manufactured in England for the West African market, and adopted as a symbol of ‘authentic’ culture throughout the African diaspora.
Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design. “Selected Works”. Providence: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 2008.
Howard, Jan and Judith Tannenbaum. “Made in the UK: Contemporary Art from the Richard Brown Baker Collection”. Providence: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 2011.
Farrell, Jennifer. “Get There First, Decide Promptly: The Richard Brown Baker Collection of Postwar Art”. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 2011.
About the work
The three costumes included here are worn by groups of dancers in Yinka Shonibare’s film Un Ballo in Maschera (2004). The film’s title, which translates as A Masked Ball, is based on an opera about mistaken private and public identity by Italian composer Guiseppe Verdi. In the film, the dancers literally perform their dramatic identities wearing costumes that mimic the clothing worn at European royal courts in the 18th century.
Rather than presenting the pastel palette favored by 18th-century European aristocrats, however, Shonibare uses brightly patterned Dutch Wax fabric, usually associated with the African diaspora, to construct costumes in the style of this era, a time when European colonial power and influence were at their height. This merging of the cloth and the style of the costumes brings together three continents, Africa, Asia, and Europe, and draws attention to their historical interconnection through trade and consumption. Although Dutch Wax fabric is often worn to express an African identity or as a symbol of African culture in Africa and in diasporic African communities, the fabric was originally produced in Holland to imitate Indonesian batik textiles imported from Dutch colonies, and was subsequently made in England for the West African market. In this way, Dutch Wax fabric signals the complicated transcontinental history of Asia, Europe, and Africa.
This work, made by a contemporary artist with connections both to Nigeria and Britain, offers a unique view onto the complex, ever-changing nature of identity. Un Ballo in Maschera (Courtiers V) highlights how cultural identities are always implicit in materials and styles even though their histories and multiple meanings may not always be obvious to the people who wear or use these products.
Look closely at the patterns and imagery on the costumes. Are there shapes, images, and colors that stand out? Now look at the shapes and cuts of the costumes—what do you notice?
Shonibare uses fabrics that are associated with Africa to make costumes in an 18th-century European style. He says, “I like the fact that the fabrics are multilayered. They have this interesting history that goes back to Indonesia. And then they’re appropriated by Africa and now represent African identities. Things are not always what they seem.” How does this statement help you understand the work? Ask students to discuss what it means for one group to appropriate the creative production of another group. Can they think of specific examples or situations, perhaps from fashion, music, film, or sports? What is being appropriated in these examples, and how is it being used?
What is gained—and what is potentially lost—in the act of appropriation?
The title of this work is Un Ballo in Maschera, or A Masked Ball. How does the title help us understand the tone or mood of the sculpture?
Watch the following clip from Shonibare’s film Un Ballo in Maschera to analyze how the pieces function in a narrative. Have students write down what they observe about the figures’ gestures, movements, and interactions, as well as the drama’s setting. Using what they have noticed and learned about Shonibare’s work, ask them to interpret the clip. How is Shonibare using the appropriation of 18th-century styles to comment on European life?
Shonibare has said that the Dutch Wax fabric appeals to him because it is a “metaphor of interdependence.” Ask your students to think of other materials or objects in their lives that embody complex histories of manufacture, influence, and trade. To consider other museum objects with interdependent histories, consider these three examples of clothing, decorative arts, and furniture.
Shonibare unites two disparate elements (Dutch Wax cloth and 18th-century styles) and transforms the meanings of both. To explore new ideas that arise from the unexpected combination of two seemingly different things, ask students to do a thought experiment: Transform an ordinary, found object by combining it with a pattern from another item. How does its identity change? Is the object now a combination of the two identities, or does one identity overshadow the other?
To explore their notions of their own cultural identities, ask students to make a list of the different communities they feel they belong to. Have them work in pairs or small groups to discuss some of the cultural products or customs of each community. What are these cultural products and what do they show? How are they perceived by others?
Conduct further research to learn about the history of Dutch Wax fabrics using the resources below.
Anthony Downey. “Yinka Shonibare,” Bomb, No.93 (Fall 2005): 25–31.
Nancy Hynes. “Re-Dressing History,” African Arts, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Autumn, 2001): 60–65.
John Picton. “Undressing Ethnicity,” African Arts, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Autumn, 2001): 66–73.
Eccentric Yoruba, guest blogger. “African Fabrics: The History of Dutch Wax Prints,” #71, April 10, 2011. http://beyondvictoriana.com/2011/04/10/african-fabrics-the-history-of-dutch-wax-prints-guest-blog-by-eccentric-yoruba/
Yinka Shonibare MBE, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia, 2008.