Yinka Shonibare “Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle” – Trafalgar Square

Anglo-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare’s artwork “Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle” was unveiled on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, by Mayor Boris Johnson on Monday 24th May 2010.

It is the first of the Fourth Plinth commissioned artworks to make specific reference to Lord Nelson, whose column dominates Trafalgar Square and to artistically explore the symbols associated with the square which commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar. It is also the first commissioned artwork by a black British artist to appear on the Fourth Plinth.

The sculpture is a scale replica (1/30) of HMS Victory, in a bottle measuring 4.7m long and 2.8m diameter. Its 37 fully rigged hand-stitched canvas sails are set as they were at the Battle of Trafalgar. The ship is minutely detailed, modelled in oak, hardwood and brass with miniature lifeboats and even 80 tiny cannon.

The artistic difference here is Shonibare’s use of traditional African print textiles instead of plain canvas. African print textile have been a key material in Shonibare’s work which explores Colonialism, Post-Colonialism, Globalization and the ambiguity inherent in British history and its national identity.

These fabrics, versions of which are seen widely across Africa were inspired by traditional Indonesian batik designs which the Dutch East Indial Company discovered, mass-produced and sold to the colonies in West Africa.

‘The cloth is worn in Africa and bought in Brixton, but it’s actually Dutch Wax, made in Holland. The prints on the sails are mine, however, I had to redesign them in order to avoid any copyright issues by adding anchors and changing the pattern in small ways.’
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Yinka Shonibare was nominated for the 2004 Turner Prize, and has a studio and gallery near London Fields.

“Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle” by Yinka Shonibare is on view on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square from May 24 2010 until the end of summer 2011.

Yinka Shonibar MBE: “Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle” – Trafalgar Square
an exclusive interview with Art21

“I want people to enter a secret world, a fantasy world. For me that’s what art means, it’s that world that you can enter that’s different from your everyday world.

All artists are kind of transgressive in a way. My job is to kind of make, or challenge if you like the Status Quo. Some people call it “thinking outside the box.”

My identity will always be central to how I am perceived and so that’s in a sense why I chose to sort of just look at it head on. When I came to Britain I learnt that being black meant that you were supposed to be somewhat inferior. I didn’t quite understand that concept at all.

But of course now I understand it better and the concept of colonialism and slavery. My work is a way of somehow thinking about that and thinking why… why has Africa been so held back, and also why are the people of African origin in Europe and America… why do they have such a raw deal?”

(Choosing materials for the sails):
“I certainly would like something like this… contrasted with something like that.”
“I want the formal strategy to be part of meaning of the work, so from using the textiles, the fabric, and what that actually means… You know they’re not just textiles they’re the sort of historical content there.

It then becomes difficult to separate what something looks like and what it expresses.

Art-making is a form of Alchemy in a way because you are trying to turn the mundane into gold. You’re really trying to make gold from nothing. I think that when it works very well is when you manage to turn the ordinary into the extra-ordinary, and that’s what keeps me doing art, because I keep chasing that, seeing how I could turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.


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