He’s a Turner Prize nominee and has been honoured by the nation but Yinka Shonibare’s work continues to trigger big responses (one critic said hanging was too good for him). On the eve of a new show about our fractious world he reveals how his life works.
“This is what I describe as my social studio: I have a project space downstairs to show the works of younger artists, an Afro-Caribbean theatre company is resident here and we host a regular supper club. I wanted to create a studio that is active and dynamic. I come in three days a week but Tuesdays, Thursday and weekends are for seeing the world, seeing art and generally living life. When I was younger I’d come in every day and it gets stressful as you’re not as productive. If you don’t stand back you can’t really see anything.
This is a very organised place. I have a studio manager, a PA and a projects co-ordinator. It’s a simple set-up and it works smoothly. I know some artists like to have a really messy studio but I want to know where things are, otherwise it gets difficult to navigate.
When it comes to a new project I usually start off with research before writing a proposal. If there are big things that need to be fabricated, then I will co-ordianate that process with my team after my design. The screenprints that I’m doing, I do on the computer myself. It’s all a combination of an idea, a proposal and my production team.
I sit here by the Wacom. It’s just like any computer but the difference is that it has a pen so that I can draw naturally. I trained as a painter but I don’t like paint on my clothes or any mess; with this I can do the work and hand it over to the printer and they can deal with it. How has it changed what I make? There are still bits of me in the pieces. The technology obviously makes it different but the idea is to use it in a very loose, easy way. It’s a question of trial and error but I’m excited about this new way of working. Plus it’s convenient for me because I do have a disability [Shonibare was diagnosed with transverse myelitis aged 19]. When I was younger I would handle really big canvasses and now I have a computer that enables me to work with them. Why not use it?
This is going to be my sixth exhibition at the Stephen Friedman Gallery. I’ll do a show there every three or four years on average and I always want to do something new. I like to push the boundaries of what I’m known for, to find new mutations and new ways of evolving while retaining a dialogue with the audience. That’s the tightrope you have to walk. They don’t want you to be repetitive; you’re expected to do new things but not completely lose the audience in the process. There’s no fabric in this show [Shonibare is know for using batik textiles associated with west Africa in his work] and I’ve never done that before. I feel liberated not using it.
Most of what I do tends to be in response to the zeitgeist. A lot of this new work has come out of the current global chaos, and religion being used as an excuse to create mayhem, hence the religious iconography that I return to. The world has become very divisive with the various conflicts, wars and terror attacks. I am not religious but I am interested in belief systems and what drives people; faith makes people do the most irrational things. It’s a fascinating area for me and there are subtle undertones of that in these pieces. What I do in my drawings is take from African ritual and religious iconography and Christianity and then create hybrid pictures and mix them together so they’re neither African nor Christian. Of course I am then also making something by hand but using digital technology to do it: the works are all based on these divides and binary oppositions.
I can remember the first shock I got in the industry: after I left Goldsmiths I was part of a group show at the Serpentine Gallery. Brian Sewell (the late waspish art critic) said in the Evening Standard that hanging was too good for me and I wore that as a badge of honour. Since then I’ve never been bothered about what people think. If you’ve been doing this for a long time you don’t really think about the galleries or the context. It’s your job, it’s what you do – it’s like breathing.”
‘...And the Wall Fell Away’ is at the Stephen Friedman Gallery from 28 September.
1962 Born in London; moves to Lagos, aged three
2002 Commissioned to create ‘Gallantry and Criminal Conversation’ as part of Documenta 11
2004 Nominated for the Turner Prize and is awarded an MBE
2008 A major mid-career survey tours the MCA Sydney, Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington
2010 ‘Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle’ is displayed on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square
2013 Elected as a Royal Academician by the Royal Academy in London