Yinka Shonibare: A Tale of Today at the Driehaus Museum

Some strange, beautiful sights have been spotted at the Driehaus Museum.

An absurdly vibrant, feast that only the likes of the Mad Hatter would have hosted. Six headless mannequins lounge around the table wearing beautiful African-inspired patterns, enjoying wine, oysters and quail eggs and a colorful headless waiter serves a feathered peacock on a platter. With matching flowers and upholstered chairs, the patterns are meticulously coordinated.  Strangely silent but full of noisy vibrancy, frozen in a moment in a time long ago, the dining room has suddenly come alive in this decadent display.

And in the library around the corner stands Big Boy – a giant, headless mannequin underneath the the skylight with a multi-pattern, colored jacket that Oscar Wilde might have sported. 

The Driehaus Museum located in Chicago’s River North is a homage to the Gilded Age, the period following the Civil War. Formerly, a show house for the Nickersons, a wealthy, influential family, which made its riches in the distilling industry and later the Chicago Railroad. The mansion has a new resident boldly changing our perspective of history.

Shonibares Big Boy, 2002 © Spirikal for WhereNYC

Like a mercurial time bandit, celebrated British artist Yinka Shonibare has invaded the Driehaus, rewriting the Victorian era in his latest installation. At first glance, it seems a humorous depiction of the latter 19th century with the use of vivid African textiles or presenting himself as the main character in the photo exhibits of scenes from classic Victorian age novels: Picture of Dorian Gray and Diary of a Victorian Dandy.

But Shonibare takes the viewer through multicultural historical journey.

“Fabricating history inbreeding race, class politics,” according the Driehaus, illustrates the artist’s interests in the Gilded and Victorian eras. The latter intertwined with artist’s Nigerian roots.

It seems unlikely that Shonibare, a man of African descent, would have been as wealthy as Dorian Gray, the artist.  His invasion of time, however, has inserted his own story into the narrative. 

Shonibare’s Boy on a Unicycle, 2005 ©Spirikal for WhereNYC

Yinka Shonibare as Dorian Gray © Spirikal for WhereNYC

Casting himself Dorian in the photo series on second floor, Shonibare gazes seriously into a mirror instead of an aging portrait, reflecting on his own mortality. (The artist had suffered a life-threatening illness at the age of 18.)

Nigeria was also a former British colony, and fabrics brought to the U.K. from Africa created a buzz among the country’s wealthy class. The outfits Shonibare uses for the mannequins reflects this. The African-inspired designs he uses ironically come Switzerland, Holland and the U.K. But rather that dismiss it as cultural appropriation, Shonibare believes they reflect Western Europes complex colonial history.

The Child on a Unicycle 2005 – is another headless surprise greets us by the stairs, sporting again the similar African patterns on 19th century-style clothing oddly blends in with the old Nickerson mansion. Like his other works at the Driehaus, Shonibare is not a cultural clash, but a personal journey of interwoven identities.

It is an odd journey, but Shonibare has given the 19th century a topsy turvy makeover by challenging us, as viewers, to rethink our understanding of the past. Western European and African histories are woven together, for better or indeed far worse, but both have influenced each other.

The exhibit continues through September 29, 2019.

Please visit the Driehaus for upcoming events.