A globally recognized artist of rock-star status, Yinka Shonibare's exhibit Magic Ladders just opened at The Barnes Foundation. I was fortunate to be there for Mr. Shonibare's talk at the opening. When it was mentioned that it is the first time The Barnes Foundation has commissioned any work since Dr. Barnes commissioned Henri Matisse in 1930, Shonibare smiled and said he was glad he didn't find that out until later.
When the Barnes Director of Education asked him what she should say about his work to the school children who will see his exhibit, he said "As an artist, I would rather hear what the children have to say."
His website says:
"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."
The image above is one of the three Magic Ladders in the exhibit, in which children ascend ladders constructed of books written or read by Albert Barnes, some very heavy tomes both literally and otherwise. As a deeply philosophical intellectual, Shonibare feels a resonance with Barnes' interest in culture and education, as well as with his early collecting of African sculpture and ties with the African American community. He was a natural to be the artist for their first contemporary commissioned exhibit.
The sculpture above is at a museum in The Netherlands. Shonibare's work is all over the world. He also enjoys doing public art:
Though born in London, he lived in Nigeria from age three until he went back to London for art school. He received his MFA from Goldsmiths, graduating as part of the 'Young British Artists' (YBAs) generation. Why is he not thought of as a YBA? Because he is Black? Because he is African as well as British? Post-colonial and global? Because his work can be political? Because he is disabled? (He uses a motorized wheelchair.) Because some of his work plays with gender (e.g. an over-life-sized figure called Big Boy, that also has breasts and a female train)?
I love him for carving his own niche, especially with Guest Projects:
http://www.yinkashonibarembe.com/articles/guest-projects/. "Guest Projects offers the opportunity for artistic practitioners, of any artistic discipline (dance, visual arts, music, etc.) to have access to a free project and exhibition space for 1 month...Guest Projects provides an alternative universe and playground for artists. It is a laboratory of ideas; a testing ground for new thoughts and actions." Shonibare's studio and home is above the Guest Project space. I don't know of anyone else in the 1% of top earning celebrity artists who is using his or her influence to nurture and mentor a whole new generation of emerging artists in this way. My guess is that the Guest Project artists are as global as Shonibare himself. And the space is fully wheelchair accessible. He is a real mensch, with rare generosity of spirit.