Yasemin Tekgurler ‘19
As the Van/Every Smith Galleries celebrate their 25-year anniversary, we get to enjoy yet another marvelous sculpture through the efforts of the gallery staff. The world-renowned artist Yinka Shonibare’s work illustrates the beauty of immigration and, in a way, celebrates the inheritance of different cultures. His use of vivid colors and texture fascinates me, while being a continuous reminder of the past—of our own backgrounds, how they come together to form our current world. Regardless of the painful and unforgettable histories of colonialization, slavery, and forced integrations, Shonibare acknowledges the outcome of those events as creation: of multi-national and borderless cultures, in which Dutch wax fabrics—with textiles that are quite often considered African—can transcend a traditional colonial ship into something celebratory. In many of his sculptures, Shonibare uses these particular symbols—ships, sails, Dutch fabrics, and African textiles—to collide the colonizer and the colonized, and create such powerful pieces.
One of the perks of being a gallery intern is, of course, getting to know our amazing gallery director and curator, Lia Newman. As I was writing this piece, I wanted to provide you all with some insight on the effort and the thought process that went on behind the scenes, with both the Wind Sculpture piece and the upcoming exhibition at the Van/Every Smith Galleries (Soft Opening on October 25th). Lia was so kind to answer some burning questions!
YT: How does the process of bringing his sculpture on campus work? When did you start talking to Shonibare? Why did you and the arts commission committee specifically want that piece? What made Shonibare and the Wind Sculpture stand out from other artists and artworks?
LN: I have long been interested in his work—probably since he first made a statement in the exhibition Sensation in 1997. The Gallery maintains a list of potential sculptors that we keep in mind and we continually add names. Shonibare rose to the list with his first generation of Wind Sculptures because of the ideals/concepts his work represents. It’s also important to me that the sculpture collection is diverse in terms of media, style, and the artists’ backgrounds. Shonibare (and the work) brings all of that to the table. We want to add works by significant artists, those who have cemented their careers because (more or less) these works are permanent additions to our campus.
When we started talking to the James Cohan Gallery there was one edition of the first generation of Wind Sculptures available, but once we saw the rendering for the new design it became obvious that this work was the one for our campus. It’s so dynamic. The Public Art Fund in NY was also talking with Shonibare about the commission so the conversation had to include a number of stakeholders once we became serious about the purchase.
YT: How does Shonibare’s work fit in a college campus? Especially regarding the sculpture, what would you say it provides the students with/what can the students learn from experiencing it?
LN: Wind Sculptureis a great public work because at first glance it’s quite accessible.It’s a beautiful work – a monument to wind, something we can’t see but we can experience through other senses. Yet, if you want to dig deeper, you will find that the work is quite complex. Shonibare connects this work to a piece he made a few years ago entitled Nelson’s Ship in a Bottlewhich features, as the title suggests, a ship in a glass bottle with 37 Dutch wax textile sails. Wind Sculpture (SG) I is a pared down version of this work, reduced to basically just one sail. Shonibare uses Dutch wax textiles (considered quintessentially African but actually of European origin) to talk about colonialism, authenticity, identity, and the movement of goods and people. Once you understand that, it’s easy to see how this sculpture fits on our campus – a place of learning and inquiry, comprised of diverse people and ideas. The sculpture is representative of our community. I also think the color, pattern and form will allow us to grow and expand the campus sculpture program in ways not possible before (I think this true of both the Beer bench and the Shonibare).
YT: What is your favorite piece/one of your favorite pieces in this exhibition?
LN: I built the exhibition around The American Library, Shonibare’snewest installation which premiered this summer at FRONT Triennialin Cleveland. I thought it was important to exhibit Shonibare’s work in the gallery at the same time the sculpture was installed as a way of providing more context for his work. The American Libraryis an installation comprising of over 6,000 books covered in Dutch wax textiles. Embossed in gold on the spines of over 3,000 of the books are the names of several generations ofimmigrantsincluding some descendants of those who landed on American shores by force, through slavery. On iPads around the gallery, visitors are able to access more information about the individuals in the library – all of whom have benefited from immigration, yet some of whom hold anti-immigration views. Visitors can also elect to contribute their own immigration stories. Through accompanying works, including Young Academician, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monstersseries, and Odile and Odette, Shonibare reminds us that in a time when truth, knowledge, and education are seemingly under attack and policy changes appear guided by fear, viewing things in binary terms – us versus them, facts versus alleged fake news – neglects to honor the history of America as a country built on immigration, sometimes forced, sometimes chosen. Immigration has long been contested, but Shonibare’s decision to highlight a vast array of individuals who helped shape our nation – for better or worse – reminds us that America is not just one chapter, one idea, or one person’s policies or views.
As the gallery continues to unpack these beautiful pieces and put The American Library together, I would love for you to visit this exhibition and think about what it stands for and what it means to you personally. To me, it is another reminder that this is an immigrant country; and immigrants don’t mean borders or passport-checks: immigrants mean culture, creating something new together; they means learning about each other and enjoying these moments of the unknown and the unfamiliar. Immigration is beautiful and every person has a story to contribute into the whole. Everyone creates their own book in the library, one that we should all pick up and cruise through.
Yasemin Tekgurler ‘19 is a Sociology and Studio Art double major from Istanbul, Turkey. She can be reached for comment at email@example.com.
Online version has been edited for clarity at the request of the author and interviewee.