Short Essay: How have contemporary artists, Mona Hatoum and Yinka Shonibare, explored the theme of diaspora identity?

Big Boy (2002), Shonibare

Big Boy (2002), Shonibare

Behind each artistic movement lays common concepts that the artists of the particular genre attempt to explore and portray. Often seen as a reflection of the society to which it is a part of, art in its various forms is thought of as a creative exploration of societal conventions and identities. During the Renaissance, religion and worship were the predominant themes portrayed in art, reflecting a devoutly Christian society. Many centuries on, the energy and dynamism of a fast developing technology-driven society served as the key influence on Futurism. In this essay I explain this complex link between changing societies and art in relation to the work of two contemporary artists, Mona Hatoum and Yinka Shonibare. Both artists were born in the mid-20th century, a time of escalating interconnections throughout the world and an increased blurring of cultures. (Daftari, F., Home and Away, in MoMA, Vol. 3, No. 8, (The Museum of Modern Art, 2000), p.2.) Their transnational movement from their origins to other locations of settlement cast Hatoum and Shonibare as contemporary artists whose multivalent art explores their diaspora identities and hybrid cultures. With reference to four specific works, I contrast and compare the possible instigators of the artists’ dislocation from their places of origin and how these politically and culturally fuelled motives are made manifest in their unique artistic creations.

Yinka Shonibare was born in London to Nigerian-born parents in 1962. When he was 3 years old his family moved back to Lagos where Shonibare lived until he was 16 before relocating back to Britain to complete his A-levels. (Oguibe, O., Finding a Place: Nigerian Artists in the Contemporary Art World in Art Journal, Vol. 58, No. 2, (College Art Association, 1999), p.38.) During his childhood, Shonibare contracted Transverse Myelitis, an inflammation across his spinal cord that severely handicapped him. As well as his unsettled upbringing, this lifelong disability, which excludes him from being able to complete daily tasks and activities independently, is often referenced in his works by the general concept of ‘us and them’. This notion of ‘the other’ and not feeling at home in one’s environment are key elements often found in artworks dealing with diaspora.

His sculpture Big Boy (2002) depicts a man dressed in Victorian regalia with his arms stretched behind his back, in an apparent pose of victory. (Dorin, L., Big Boy in Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol. 32, No. 1, (Chicago:The Art Institute of Chicago, 2006), p.42.) The seemingly confident model makes it hard for the audience to look beneath the surface of this work and understand the violence and racial stereotypes that Shonibare implies, made manifest in the character’s missing head. The model is depicted as an anonymous African man who adopts the English manner of speech and dress. Without his head and face, the sculpture appears void of any true identity, and is thus considered by his fellow countrymen to be nothing more than a ‘fake’ Englishman. This inevitably implies the notion of diaspora as the African figure is seen attempting to adopt a new culture, in the hope of fitting in to a new home. However, in the process, Shonibare implies that the character looses sight of himself and his true origins, obliterating his face and any sense of individualism.


Big Boy (2002), Shonibare

Further alluding to bicultural diaspora identity is Shonibare’s use of Dutch wax print fabric. Originally discovered in Indonesia, the Dutch bought samples of the fabric back to Europe and produced it industrially for international exportation. Popularised in Africa, the fabric became associated with West African culture, and its ties to Indonesia were forgotten. Particularly in Nigeria, the fabric was manufactured en masse again and re-exported to Europe, where it was marketed and sold as a nationalistic product of Africa. The designs have now come to reflect the fabric’s global commodity status, and are seen as a symbol of contemporary consumer culture. Playing on this, Shonibare is known to have bought these fabrics from Brixton markets. Using materials of such misunderstood origins further helps Shonibare establish binary opposites in his works, such as the notion of the self and the other, the domestic and exotic, authenticity and imitation. His product is multivalent art, full of juxtaposition and irony, conjuring feelings of disjunct and misplacement.

Often identified with the investigation into contemporary colonialism, Shonibare’s questioning into the notion of a ‘pure culture’ is further explored in his work Mr. and Mrs. Andrews without Their Heads (1998). Shonibare uses one of Thomas Gainsborough’s iconic works, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews (1750), and appropriates it into a sculpture that indirectly parodies the British aristocracy. (Shonibare, Y., Kaplan, A., Give and Take Conversations in Art Journal, Vol. 61, No. 2, (College Art Association, 2002), p.82.) The male figure stands tall clutching his gun next to his dog and seated wife. In a symbolic use of levels, it is as if Shonibare is implying the animal and female as inferior to the male – who are portrayed as mere material possessions that offer status in a class-driven society. Perhaps referring to the beheading during the French Revolution, Shonibare shows his figures headless, and like Big Boy, without identity.


Mr and Mrs Andrews without their heads (1998), Shonibare

In both Big Boy and Mr. and Mrs. Andrews without Their Heads, Shonibare appropriates Victorian culture, using specific fashion and subject matters indicative of the British establishment. Used in conjunction with the ‘African’ fabrics, Shonibare challenges the mythology of a ‘pure culture’, instead highlighting the fact that all culture is essentially hybrid. These ideologies stand as part of the backbone to the notion of diaspora, showing Shonibare as a culturally sensitive artist of contrasting origins.

Much like Shonibare’s work, that of Mona Hatoum defies cultural categorisation, as the hybrids in her work bring together not only inflictions of different cultures, but also elements of opposition within Middle Eastern tradition, such as the combination of women and politics. Born in Beirut in 1952 to a family of Lebanese exiles, Hatoum left for London in 1975. It was during this trip that civil war erupted in Beirut and prevented her from returning home, leaving the artist separated from her family. (Hatoum, M., McAllister, J.Shifting Ground in Grand Street, No. 62, Identity, (Jean Stein, 1997), p.209. Perhaps reflecting the complexity of her origin, she uses a broad range of media in her art, such as sculpture and performance and various non-artistic materials, like her own hair. In doing so, it is as if Hatoum is exploring the diverse possible outcomes created by the coming together of dissimilar cultures to form new compound tertiary cultures.

Created from her own hair, Hatoum’s indexical piece Keffieh (1993-1994), is symbolic of Palestine and the struggles this country and its people have been through over the decades. First worn by the Palestinian political leader, Yasser Arafat, the keffieh is a scarf worn mostly by and associated with men. Arafat led fights against Israel and is thus seen by Israelis as a terrorist, while simultaneously revered by Palestinians as a freedom fighter. These mixed views of him disclose Arafat as a highly controversial figure, and consequently portray the keffieh as an equally debatable symbol.

Contrasting to this complex meaning of the keffieh, is the grid form found in this work; in abstract art, it symbolises hope and utopian universality. (Mansoor, J., A Spectral Universality: Mona Hatoum’s Bipolitics of Abstraction in October Magazine, Ltd., (MIT Press, 2010), pp.49-74.) Mona created the grid-like pattern on her keffieh through a labour intensive process of weaving, using traditional equipment such as a loom and needles. The arts of weaving and sewing undoubtedly relate to women and therefore a strong female identity is implied in the work. The link between the binary oppositions of war and peace, and women in politics, create a conflicted piece, made manifest in the highs and lows of the ripped edges of Keffieh. The discordant edges of harshness juxtaposed with the smoothness of the central section of the grid create a clashing friction in the work. The contradictions found in Keffieh are perhaps indicative of Hatoum’s conflicts within herself, between the Middle Eastern culture of her childhood and the new culture she has had to learn to adopt in Britain. Keffieh is a public exposition of the struggles the artist has made when dealing with her diaspora identity. Haunted by the experience of her displacement and the memory of a birthplace that was overnight rendered beyond reach, (Boullata, K., Journal of Palestine StudiesVol. 32, No. 4, (California:University of California Press, 2003), p.23.) this work embodies a sense of constant longing, conjuring feelings of detachment and indifference.


Keffieh (1993-1994), Hatoum

In his article, The Location of Culture, Homi. K. Bhabha says of Remembrance:

“Remembering is never a quiet act of introspection or retrospection. It is a painful re-membering, a putting together of the dismembered past to make sense of the trauma of the present.” (Bhabah, Homi K., The Location of Culture, (London: Routledge, 1994), p.215.)

Hatoum makes a direct reference to her Palestinian past, drawing on personal memories of dislocation and disruption. However, instead of playing the role of victim, she confidently fights back against her personal conflict surrounding dislocation, and embraces her diaspora identity. The performance of the weaving and stitching to create Keffieh can be seen as an art form in itself, metaphoric of a peaceful protest against the stereotypes of ‘the outsider’, that diaspora identity initially brings. Hatoum’s creation of Keffieh therefore possibly serves as a piece of acceptance, where the artist acknowledges the strains of remembering her disjointed past, and moves on with her future in a new home and environment.

The same underlying feeling of hope is explored in her installation work, Hanging Garden (2008). Stacked sand sacks, a prevalent sight throughout the Middle East, become the matrix of bright fresh green grass. This work metaphorically explores the notion of futurity and growth, which are implied as being threatened, as the sacks could be moved and disturbed at any time. Hatoum explains,

         “This work implies that the sacks have been around so long that plants started growing on them. There is something hopeful in even the most inhospitable of environments.”

Through this work, it is as if Hatoum is implying that like these sacks, culture and our seemingly constant home environments can be threatened and destroyed at any time. This notion refers back to the artist’s own upbringing where she and her family were extradited from their home. However, despite these dangers of war and the need to flee one’s home, Hatoum implies that hope and precarious life are entwined through a work that undoubtedly celebrates the frailties in her cultural origins.


Hanging Garden (2008), Hatoum

Though from very different cultural backgrounds, Yinka Shonibare and Mona Hatoum have immigrated to Britain, adopting with their new environment a new cultural identity. Despite both inhabiting the same location, Shonibare and Hatoum depict contrasting experiences of settlement into England, the country they have come to call home. Shonibare parodies the British establishment and its aristocracy, implying cultures are far from authentic, and are instead the result of mere social constructs based upon societal conventions and norms. In Shonibare’s work there is an element of denial and misplace, casting the artist as an outsider of society looking in. From his foreign viewpoint, his observations are run on a basis of indifference, and he consequently marks himself as a quintessential artist of diaspora identity.
In comparison Hatoum calls upon her unsettled past to help her embrace the new world she finds herself in. Unlike Shonibare, Hatoum does not deny the struggles of adapting to a new society, and instead explores and accepts her conflicting cultural identities. Both artists investigate the notion of their diaspora identity uniquely and creatively, and produce works of art that ultimately inspire an empathetic understanding across cultural borders.

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