Divide and conquer | Monocle

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“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.

Master strokes

Yinka Shonibare CV

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

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