A traveller in an unknown world, the Refugee astronaut seems both under- and over-prepared for his trip. From the spherical helmet, spacesuit and moon boots, we might imagine him about to embark on an intergalactic journey. But the jumble of possessions and the makeshift nature of his backpack suggest another story. On closer inspection, the objects he carries, the fabric of his clothing and several other signs point to a compelling reading for our times.
Yinka Shonibare’s reputation as an artist stems, in part, from his use of richly patterned fabrics and their application across sculpture, painting, photography, film and performance work. Born in London of Yoruba heritage, Shonibare grew up in Nigeria and Britain, studied at Byam Shaw School of Art and Goldsmiths College and now lives and works in London. Shonibare represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2001, and his work features in many public collections in Britain and internationally.
Most of Shonibare’s figures are headless, but he has recently used globes to represent various extreme weather events around the world. In Refugee astronaut the austerity of the mirrored helmet serves to emphasise the artist’s signature Dutch wax fabrics. At a distance the suit appears as military camouflage; but, up close, we can disentangle bright yellow clocks from the amorphous roots. The astronaut’s air pack and tubes are covered in another batik-like green, red and black cloth. Printed cotton fabrics of this type were produced in the Netherlands and Manchester from the nineteenth century, originally intended as a cheaper, mass‑produced alternative to batiks made in Indonesia. When Indonesians rejected the foreign fabrics, they were exported to West Africa and became a symbol of national pride and independence. Using a range of references from pop culture, history and imperialism, Shonibare plays with expectations of Afrocentric authenticity and explores attitudes to nationalism.
The astronaut is a recurring theme in Shonibare’s work; sometimes his figures are arranged as a family group and sometimes they are suspended from the ceiling. The lone Refugee astronaut, however, is firmly anchored, stepping forward, shoring up his load. Where is this traveller going and from what does he seek refuge? In his bundle of possessions, we see survey equipment, a hastily rolled tarpaulin, an enamel jug and bowl, pencils and other drawing items, even a toothbrush. The prominence of the circular butterfly net wedged into the backpack, above the figure’s head, is equally intriguing.
When first shown in Rage of the ballet gods, the artist’s solo show at James Cohan Gallery in New York, Refugee astronaut was juxtaposed with several other works featuring butterfly wings. The butterfly, as a metaphor for chaos, is a symbol of cause and effect. Is our astronaut a predator of butterflies or does he offer them a means of escape? These types of dualities occur throughout Shonibare’s work. Refugee astronaut is a compelling work, demonstrating a unique blend of notions of identity, globalisation, climate change and survival instincts in a contemporary world.
Lucina Ward, Curator, International Painting and Sculpture
in artonview, issue 84, Summer 2015