London, May 2010 – ArtSlant writer Nicholas James had the great opportunity to have a brief chat with Yinka Shonibare about his commission for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, London. The work was officially unveiled on 24 May 2010. Shonibare has exhibited internationally through platforms such as the Venice Biennial, Documenta 10, as well as being a Turner Prize nominee in 2004. Shonibare's Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle will be the first time that a commission for the Fourth Plinth responds directly to the context of Trafalgar Square as this piece commemorates the battle of Trafalgar during the Napoleonic Wars.
Yinka Shonibare, MBE, Maquette of Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, 2010; Courtesy James O. Jenkins
Nicholas James: Your new work is presented on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. Can you describe some of the initial thoughts you had in response to the commission?
Yinka Shonibare: I wanted to do something that related to the history of the square itself. As you know there is Nelson’s Column in the Square, then I thought about the Battle of Trafalgar, really thinking about, why is it called Trafalgar Square? I arrived at HMS Victory, the ship in which Nelson won the battle. Because I’m of Nigerian origin, I was interested in the aspect of the British contact with Nigeria. The Victory at Trafalgar opened up British trade routes, that enabled contact with all kinds of people, and really gave us the multi-cultural London we have today. So I wanted to relate contemporary London to that history.
NJ: Can you explain more about your model of the Victory and how it differs from being just a replica?
YS: Well the sails on the ship are unusual; they are made out of African textiles. The textiles are Indonesian influenced batik, first produced by the Dutch in the 19th century, for sale to the African market. The fabrics were also produced in Manchester. I buy the fabrics from Brixton market and they’ve become a kind of metaphor for the international trade routes. It’s a way to talk about, you could say, globalisation on the one hand, and how this had its roots in the colonial period.
Yinka Shonibare, Sketch of Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, 2010; Courtesy the artist and Bolton & Quinn Ltd
NJ: You’ve made tableaux and models that transform scenes from history. In fact I came across a ship in an earlier exhibition called ‘The Medusa’, that was wrecked off the coast of Senegal. I wonder whether that work was at the back of your mind with the Victory in a bottle?
YS: Yes, I’m fascinated by ships anyway, so you are right. I have made a number of works around ships. La Meduse was a French ship wrecked off the coast of Senegal, and there was a scandal at the time because a lot of people died needlessly. Gericault made a painting about that incident.
NJ: The epic painting, ‘The Raft of the Medusa.’
YS: Exactly. So historically ships have been the imperial vehicle, and in a sense my own identity has been formed by contacts made and battles fought over past trade routes. Of course the British Navy was very strong, Britain was a maritime country and with the Navy expanded its empire. So for many, many reasons the ship has been the vehicle of migration, of the Diaspora. The ship played a significant role in the trading of slaves. The ship is the metaphor for the movement of people on a grand scale and is very significant in that sense.
NJ: The plinth commission marks the fiftieth anniversary of Nigerian Independence. Is there a message that the work carries for everybody?
YS: Well in a way we’ve come full circle; the ship itself allowed the British Empire to grow and Nigeria is celebrating fifty years of independence from Britain. That independence is a kind of Nigerian self-esteem, if you like. The relationship Nigeria now has with Britain is very different, through the Commonwealth, and it’s no longer a subservient one. So maybe this is one way of celebrating that.
Artslant would like to thank Yinka Shonibare for his assistance in making this interview possible.