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Review: Take time to find Shonibare's work at the Art Museum

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 13, 2010 - It will take you time and effort to locate the seven figures by Yinka Shonibare now on display at the St. Louis Art Museum. And that’s largely the point.

“Mother and Father Worked Hard So I Can Play” is a series of child-sized, headless mannequins wearing clothes made of “African print,” Dutch wax fabrics that are Shonibare’s signature material. They’ve been installed in five of the museum’s “Period Rooms,” those recreations of historic interiors in the basement where few visitors ever go.

“Period Rooms” are standard fare in respectable municipal museums like SLAM; they present lessons in cultural history using interior decoration — furniture, paintings, wallpaper and tapestries — as a vehicle.

It’s a great idea, but it feels antiquated as an exhibition practice, particularly in an age when museums struggle to present new media and more cutting-edge installations to appeal to a younger art crowd.

This is where Shonibare steps in: He focuses on issues of imperial, colonial and cultural power as they are manifested in objects of decorative and textile design. Shonibare’s figures — headless, anonymous — are dressed in colorful, printed textiles that evoke African-ness but are actually the product of complex forces of international trade.

Plunked down in the domestic interiors of 18th and 19th century France, England and the U.S., these children, engaged in innocent play, represent an ironic return of the repressed. For the very wealth that undergirds these national power structures was built on the violent colonial enterprise that made the trade of such products possible.

There are marvelous moments of epiphany throughout this exhibition, the finest example being the “Boy Doing Headstand” in the Salem Room. Dressed in a vibrant, exotic printed jacket and leather riding boots, he’s surrounded by scenic wallpaper depicting views of India, with beautifully clad figures riding elephants in leafy, lush landscapes.

Those with shorter attention spans won’t have the patience to pursue this exhibition, and that’s a shame. Even those who do manage to see all of the works might be lulled into complacency by Shonibare’s jovial figures and the graceful interiors they inhabit. It will take extra effort to perceive the myriad issues with which the artist is engaging here, but the payoff is immense.

Ivy Cooper, a professor of art at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, is the Beacon's art critic.