The Dutch wax-resist batik fabrics that Yinka Shonibare uses to craft historical costumes carry a complex colonial history. Developed in Holland during the mid-nineteenth century as an inexpensive manufactured alternative to Indonesian textiles, European traders marketed it to West Africa, and within a century, the boldly printed cotton became a sign of African identity. Out of cloth he describes as “cross-bred,” Shonibare tailored a traveling costume for Sarah Hewitt, named after one of the founders of the Cooper Hewitt Museum. She and her sister, Eleanor, toured Europe in the early 1880s. Shonibare’s choice to dress the figure in a textile with foreign implications plays with the idea of the “exotic other.” The mannequin teeters on seemingly unstable stilts, undermining her air of lofty superiority. She holds a lorgnette, but without a head she cannot see. Layering contradictory references to race and identity, Shonibare confronts the daunting legacy of colonialism for a post-colonial world.

From Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts 89 (2015)
Yinka Shonibare is best known for his use of wax-resist batiks to clothe mannequins displayed in tableaux that have specific historic references. European batiks were produced as an inexpensive alternative to traditional Indonesian textiles. English and Dutch merchants sold the printed goods at African ports, where the fabric was purchased as an affordable substitute for the precious African-made cloths. As its iconography evolved the batik become a sign of modernity and status in Africa. Sarah Hewitt is clothed in two auspicious patterns: ABC cloth and magic square. The cut of her traveling costume dates to 1883–84, as indicated by the briefly fashionable Langtry bustle. This time frame corresponds to Sarah Hewitt's Grand Tour travels.

As granddaughters of the industrialist Peter Cooper and daughters of New York City mayor Abram S. Hewitt, Sarah and her sister Eleanor's Grand Tour involved extensive travel to regions beyond Europe. From their perspective native people were the ethnic other; traveling among these indigenous peoples, however, they were the outsiders. The skin color of Shonibare's mannequins is the European mark of otherness, a designation that would have been a horrifying truth to the Hewitts.

To complicate these notions Shonibare introduces stilts, a mode of locomotion practiced by African maskers. The figure's height implies superiority; however, in the masquerade context it would have also conferred "otherness" and even a nonhuman identity, because the figure lacks a head, synonymous to personhood in African philosophy. The gamelike motion of stilt walking and the figure's awkward gait imbues the artist's conceit with searing humor. Sarah Hewitt hovers above the viewer, caught precariously between European and African modes of signification.

Through complicated readings of identity, Shonibare doubles, and thus questions, conventions of classification. He reconsiders long-held European notions about race and social status through the lens of non-Western attitudes and modes of signification. By engaging postcolonial dialogues, he reveals familiar and natural occurrences in a new light.

Rebecca Hart

From Through African Eyes: The European in African Art, 1500 to Present (Detroit, 2009)
Artist Yinka Shonibare, English, born 1962
Title
  • Sarah Hewitt
Date 2005
Medium fiberglass, Dutch wax-printed cotton, leather, wood, and steel
Dimensions Overall: 150 × 45 1/2 × 48 inches (3 m 81 cm × 115.6 cm × 121.9 cm)
Credit Line Museum purchase, W. Hawkins Ferry Fund, Friends of Modern Art Acquisition Fund, Janis and William Wetsman Foundation Fund, and funds from Lila and Gilbert B. Silverman, and Andrew L. and Gayle Shaw Camden Contemporary and Decorative Art Fund
Accession Number 2006.147
Department Contemporary Art after 1950
Not On View
(James Cohan Gallery, New York, New York, USA);
2006-present, purchase by the Detroit Institute of Arts (Detroit, Michigan, USA)