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Yinka Shonibare MBE: Magic Ladders

The Barnes Foundation presents Yinka Shonibare MBE: Magic Ladders from January 24, 2014 through April 21, 2014. A British artist of Nigerian descent, Shonibare has exhibited extensively in the United States and Europe. His work alludes to European art and intellectual history and explores race, slavery, authenticity, and commerce. The works in the exhibition—approximately 15 sculptures, paintings, photographs, and a room installation—address themes of education, opportunity, and scientific and cultural discovery.  This is the artist’s first major exhibition in Philadelphia, since his residency at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in 2004 and it includes a commission entitled Magic Ladders.

“Several of Shonibare’s sculptures refer to the Enlightenment and its ideals of rationality and exploration,” says Judith F. Dolkart, deputy director of art and archival collections and Gund Family Chief Curator at the Barnes. “Shonibare shares Dr. Barnes's belief that education can improve individual lives, benefitting society as a whole. Barnes turned his pharmaceutical factory into a progressive and integrated workplace, where he devoted two hours of each eight-hour workday to discussions on philosophy, psychology, and aesthetics with his employees.”

Shonibare’s sculptures—life-sized mannequins clothed in the colorful Dutch wax fabrics produced in Europe but closely associated with Africa—offer a provocative examination of European colonialism and European and African identities. The artist also investigates the idea of the outsider, intrigued and perhaps drawn to a dominant culture yet remaining distinct from and peripheral to it. Shonibare, who was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2004, was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2005 by Queen Elizabeth II. He uses his title professionally, if ironically, to highlight the ambiguousness of status, identity, and belonging.

The Foundation’s collaboration with Shonibare pays homage to Barnes’s interest in contemporary art and artists. The centerpiece of the exhibition is the Barnes commission Magic Ladders, which explores childhood learning and the opportunities that education can create. In considering the exhibition and commission, the artist reviewed the complicated and decades-long correspondence between Barnes and Leo Stein, a fellow collector and an important advisor and friend as Barnes built his art collection and educational foundation. In Magic Ladders, three children ascend ladders constructed of books written or read by Albert Barnes. Other recent sculptures in the exhibition, Planets in My Head, Philosophy (2011); Planets in My Head, Physics (2010); and Pedagogy Boy/Boy (2011), echo the theme of the magical, transformative discoveries of childhood learning.

The exhibition invites viewers to reflect upon Barnes’s collecting practice, particularly in terms of its connections to colonialism. One of the first American collectors to regard African sculpture as fine art rather than ethnographic curiosity, Barnes displayed African masks and figures alongside paintings by Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani. A champion of education for African Americans, Barnes made his collection of African art broadly available to black readers through Opportunity magazine. Ironically, his acquisition of African art was made possible by the imperialist colonization of Africa, a theme explored in Shonibare’s monumental Scramble for Africa (2003).

Victorian Philanthropist’s Parlour (1996–1997), a room elaborately and excessively decorated with Dutch wax fabrics and garnished with objects placed symmetrically on a mantle, is for Shonibare a meditation on taste, status, and empire. In the context of the Barnes collection’s distinctive wall ensembles, it might prompt the viewer to consider methods of display.

Yinka Shonibare MBE: Magic Ladders has been organized by Judith F. Dolkart, deputy director of art and archival collections and Gund Family Chief Curator and will be on view in the Aileen and Brian Roberts Gallery. The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated 84-page book by Ms. Dolkart, containing a short essay and entries for works in the exhibition, some of them accompanied by reproductions of documents from the archive of the Barnes Foundation.

Yinka Shonibare MBE was born in London and moved to Lagos, Nigeria at the age of three. He returned to London to study Fine Art first at Byam Shaw College of Art (now Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design) and then at Goldsmiths College, where he received his MFA, graduating as part of the “Young British Artists” generation. He currently lives and works in London.