Colonial Legacy in the French Salon


Colonial Legacy in the French Salon
Gallery 318 – On View
Yinka Shonibare MBE
English, born 1962


Yinka Shonibare MBE
Dressing Down, 1997
Wax printed cotton textile, crinoline, aluminum, plastic, felt
Collection of Gordon Locksley and George T. Shea

At first glance this fancy gown seems right at home in a dazzling Parisian salon. A closer look will reveal that the dress is made not of French silk but of printed cotton, produced in Europe for the West African market. The artist uses this type of Dutch wax-resist dyed fabric, inspired by Indonesian batiks, to suggest the complex web of trade and exploitation that enabled Europeans to control most of the world’s riches for centuries. Yinka Shonibare’s Dressing Down, in fact, is an alluring critique of colonialism. Its placement in the Grand Salon from the Hôtel Gaillard de La Bouëxière (c. 1735) raises the question, “Whose resources and labor made this luxury possible?”

Medallions on either side of the room indicate the homeowner’s power and privilege, portraying the world’s continents as beautiful women, each identified by a headdress. Europe wears the helmet of Minerva, Greek goddess of wisdom; Asia sports a camel; the Americas are topped with feathers; and Africa dons an elephant. Other carved and gilded decorations of the Grand Salon refer to hunting, music, and the theater, all pastimes of a so-called gentleman.

Shonibare has called himself a “postcolonial hybrid.” Born in London in 1962 to Nigerian parents, he and his family moved to Lagos when the artist was three. He returned to London to attend art school, and now lives in that city’s East End. Shonibare was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2005; he has chosen to make this title a part of his name to further express the colonial legacy, class structure, and social justice issues that persist in Africa.

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