“How to Blow Up Two Heads at Once (Ladies),” a 2006 work by Yinka Shonibare with mannequins, guns, Dutch wax-printed cotton textile,shoes, boots and plinth (Steve White/Museum Purchase, Wellesley College Friends of Art)

In his Victorian house in the East End here Yinka Shonibare, the British-Nigerian conceptual artist, perched on an exercise ball at the wooden table in his book-crammed study, sipping peppermint tea and examining a shipment of faux oysters on the half shell.

A stationary hand cycle sat beside him, an electric wheelchair across from him. One of Bob and Roberta Smith’s slogan paintings, “Duchamp stinks like a homeless person,” hung above him, and a tuna on toast prepared by his housekeeper was sandwiched between a vase of yellow tulips and a stack of Dante volumes: “Inferno,” “Purgatorio” and “Paradiso.”

It was a small tranquil moment in the midst of a whirlwind time for Mr. Shonibare, whose theatrically exuberant work, with its signature use of headless mannequins and African fabrics, will be featured in a major midcareer survey at the Brooklyn Museum starting Friday. The exhibition includes paintings, sculptures, large-scale installations, photographs and films.

Erudite and wide ranging, Mr. Shonibare, at 47, is a senior figure in the British art world but one who intentionally eludes easy categorization. A disabled black artist who continuously challenges assumptions and stereotypes — “That’s the point of my work really,” he said — Mr. Shonibare makes art that is sumptuously aesthetic and often wickedly funny. When he deals with pithy matters like race, class, disability, colonialism and war, he does so deftly and often indirectly.

“I don’t produce propaganda art,” he said. “I’m more interested in the poetic than the didactic.”

On that gray May day in the East End, Mr. Shonibare was trying to decompress after directing a weeklong photo shoot that involved 25 live snakes, 14 nude models, 6 pigs and 2 lamb’s heads. Inspired by Dante, Arthur Miller, Gustav Doré and the financial crisis, the shoot was a work in progress, “Willy Loman: The Rise and Fall,” which seeks to depict what happens after the death of the salesman. (Hint: It’s hellish.)

At the same time Mr. Shonibare was preparing for a trip to Jerusalem, where he is a guest curator at the Israel Museum. He was granting an hours-long interview, interrupted periodically by his plumber — “Do you happen to know where the stopcock is, mate?” — and he was evaluating the oysters for inclusion alongside a peacock with gilded beak in a 19th-century dinner party installation at the Newark Museum.

“I’m juggling a few things, yeah,” said Mr. Shonibare, who in contrast to his bold and lavish work, is disarmingly gentle and restrained in person.

Because of a condition that left him partially paralyzed, Mr. Shonibare’s head lists to the right, as if being tugged there by a few of his jaunty dreadlocks. This often makes it look as if he were cocking his head to see things more clearly. But that impression is misleading because, as Arnold L. Lehman, director of the Brooklyn Museum, put it, his is the sure gaze of a “visionary” artist: “He’s able to juggle so many different ideas so brilliantly and to express them in such an immensely appealing and extraordinarily visual way.”


Deborah Sontag
New York Times