Yinka Shonebare’s ‘British Library’

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Three walls of the gallery are taken up with shelves of 6,328 books. On 2,700 of the books are the names, printed in gold leaf, of first- and second-generation immigrants to Britain who have made significant contributions to the country’s culture and history.

The diverse list of names ranges from Alan Rickman, who is listed as being of Irish descent, and Alesha Dixon (Jamaican father) to Liam Gallagher (Irish parents) and Lionel Blair (born in Canada) to Zadie Smith (Jamaican mother) and Zane Lowe (born in New Zealand). It is an eclectic mix that also features Dido, Winston Churchill, Mel B, Sid James, Danny Welbeck and Mary I.

There are also books with names of people who have opposed immigration: Oswald Mosley, for example, alongside Norman Tebbit, Paul Nuttall, Patrick Moore, Patricia Skitmore and Richard Littlejohn. Many books have no name – suggesting, the artist said, that the story of British immigration is still unwritten.

Mark Brown


the work is oddly too modernist i think. but not uninteresting. and i have to say, the maya lin stratety that was ground breaking at the time, the listing of names, is feeling a bit worn out to me. all that said, i still really like this work… it must be the use of batik…  on the upside, despite the quantity and the immense labour that went into it production, it’s gorgeously simple. the book in it’s ‘purest’ form – content-less – ? an entire library that can’t be read… i guess that puts language and text and semocentrism in its place! on the downside, again… stylistically speaking, its all a bit too simple, conceptually. or, is it? i don’t know enough about the work to say. but the question necessary to answer the conceptual question is: is it more than a pretty display of book wrappers? with only a variety of names adorning the binding of books without content that can never be taken off the shelf, let alone, read. so if the names are the key to making it more than a work of minimalist abstraction in the form of the library; yet, the work makes no commentary other than the list of names, then it’s reductive and aestheticizing. so the question remains, and the article doesn’t provide any information about that – what information is on the tablets? the crucial bit of info that might make sense of these questions, that the guardian fails to provide. i’d be pissed off were i yinka. if the tablets provide substantial info about the names, which i imagine they must; then, well, the work puts the gallery-goer in the position of the librarian, archivist, scholar, investigator. well, at least it might make the brits curious enough to pursue those subjective opportunities. in which case, the work-as-library is simple a means by which to turn the public to the medium of choice these days – the tablet… in which case, yinka’s work is deviously clever – ‘content’ is displaced from the library to the tablet and makes the public responsible for it. and, well again, the work also puts the two forms of media into contention in a powerful way.

but… in this speculative scenario, it all comes down to the question – what does the tablet info provide? knowing his work fairly well, I assume the tablet info is rich. in which case, the work poses, or better put, stages, all the questions i’ve raised, but through the decidedly ‘post modern’ conflict of information dissemination: the obsolescence of the analog book and library versus the digital library. IF this is an accurate take on Yinka’s work, then, Tate is spot on to collect it because of what it has staged – the massive historical shift from traditional media to digital media, in the context of knowledge production and dissemination on the one hand; and, and information production and dissemination, on the other.

and well, all my previous speculation might have been put to rest had i revealed the work’s title. but that would have been no fun, would it? “The British Library” tapes into the debates about who that august institution represents; what it has to say about whom; in it’s vast holding. but that’s not quite rightly put, is it? it is about the absence of commentary, about the silence that if one is willing to listen to, is the loudest sound shouting in its vast archives, of those never written about, and, of those who have written but have never been deemed worthy of inclusion

ah… another series of pearodoxes…

shonibare’s work, to raise another issue, uses the book form in a way that is not meant to be read, only viewed. which reminds me that the main thesis of walter benjamin’s essay on the collector is that the collector only buys books that he/she’ll never read… the power for the collector, resides simply in the fact of an object that he-she’ll never consume. which makes the book valuable only as an object of promise of a future possibility.

i wouldn’t have had these thoughts but for Gerrie Van Noord’s chapter 3 in progress. so thanks to her.

some context for those not familiar with Shonebare’s work. he is nigerian-british artist who lives in london. his work is about British colonization of Africa, and many other things. from my point view, his work has little to do with what’s often attributed to him – identity politics. my view is that his work is political, full stop. it’s framed by too many aesthetic commitments to parse here. IF his work has anything to do with identity politics, it’s to critique its narrow register. he uses gorgeous designed batik fabrics based loosely on traditional African clothing patterns and Victorian fashion design, figuration, that alludes to many things, not least of which is the offensive diaramas found in anthropology museum’s around the world. in a manner of polemic condemnation worthy of hogarth and swift, in that they are satires of the British empire in all its colonialist un-glory.

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Yinka Shonebare’s ‘British Library’

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