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Yinka Shonibare: 'My parents would have been proud'

DELIVERING ART: Yinka Shonibare pictured in his studio with a model of his Royal Mail stamp

CONSIDERING ALL that he has achieved in his career so far, Yinka Shonibare exudes humility and youthful joy. It’s not something you might expect from an artist whose work has been displayed in some of the most prestigious art institutions both here in the UK and internationally, featured on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth and secured him a Turner prize nomination.

His light-filled studio in east London overlooks the canal. Inside it is full of his work – vibrant, colourful and intriguing.

On display there is work in progress, archive creations, materials for inspiration and a model of the new stamp that he’s designed for the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) and Royal Mail – the reason I’ve travelled to his studio to meet with him.


CAPTIVATED BY COLOUR: Yinka Shonibare’s studio is filled with fabrics and clothing using African-inspired designs and tones

Shonibare is one of six artists chosen by the RA to create a stamp to celebrate its 250th anniversary.

Each of those commissioned are royal academicians, artists who are members of an 80-strong group who effectively run the RA.

The brief was to create a design based on the academy’s annual summer exhibition, an event held uninterrupted since 1769.

In search of inspiration, Shonibare dove into the archives. A familiar theme of his work that is renowned for mak- ing historical references but juxtaposing them with contemporary flavours He calls his studio manager over to share the image with me.

It’s a black and white photograph of a crowd in the RA’s courtyard. He tells me they are queuing for a Turner exhibition in the 1950s. The patrons umbrellas – several are pictured – are aloft.

It is the smallest scale he’s worked on and it was not without its challenges.

In keeping with his previous work, Shonibare’s stamp, Queuing at the RA, is characterised by colour. Vibrant umbrella shapes jump out from a solid black background.

“It is a challenge to work on stamp scale so that’s why the work is very graphic, there are huge contrasts and you have to do something that’s really easy to understand on a very small scale – you do that with colour.


MINI MASTERPIECE: Shonibare's stamp design

“I’ve simplified the form but I think simplifying works on a very small scale because you can see the contrast very easily and then also it has the potential to look abstract, which I like as well.”

Shonibare is clearly happy to have been commissioned for the project. I ask him if he will be sending more letters now (an opportunity for more and more people to see his work) he laughs and says he will.

But there are two people he would have loved to witness this particular achievement.

“It’s a shame my parents are no longer with us. They would have been proud that I did a stamp.”

Shonibare was born in London to Nigerian parents and moved to Lagos at the age of three.

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His childhood is in some ways referenced through some of his most famous work that uses batik African prints.

Those who will see and purchase this tiny masterpiece will be in the hundreds of thousands.

“My work will be seen by a lot of people around the world, which is also something I feel very honoured to be doing,” he tells me.

The art world has not been immune from criticisms regarding a lack of diversity and inclusion and various think pieces have been published claiming that galleries and museums are unwelcoming to black people.

An avid museum-goer myself, I’ve not been able to relate to claims that “black people don’t go to galleries”, but I broach the topic with Shonibare regardless.


FROM PLINTH TO POST: Shonibare in his studio next to a model of Nelson's Ship in a Bottle, which was exhibited on Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth

“I think it’s very important that people don’t believe any kinds of myths about themselves...I think that people should have the freedom to do whatever they want to do and not feel that they’re limited to where they go and where they can’t go.

“Everyone enjoys art, everyone enjoys the arts not just visual arts, generally, and I think if people are exposed to it they can engage with it in the same way as anybody else.

“So I think it’s a question of people just breaking down walls and just doing things that they’re not expected to do.”

Accessibility is something Shonibare is passionate about.

The artist says those living in London are very lucky with the many free museums, galleries and exhibitions. Referring to his stamp, he says: “It’s actually accessible, so people can have my artwork in their homes – they don’t have to actually go to a museum or go to the square to see it. So that’s a great thing.”

As well as accessible, he believes art should be political in some way or other.

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“Even if you don’t want to be political in the work, the climate that you’re making the work in will affect the kind of work that you make. For me, personally, I think that socially engaged art is important.”

The British-Nigerian artist’s answer mirrors his approach to his career. It appears as if the sky is the limit for Shonibare, whose work has reached great heights both figuratively and literally, with pieces including Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, Wind Sculpture SG 1 and Globe Head Ballerina.

Shonibare’s stamp and those created by the five other artists can be bought at royalmail.com/royalacademy. All of the artworks are available from 7,000 Post Offices nationwide.

Talisman In The Age Of Difference runs at the Stephen Friedman Gallery, 25-28 Old Burlington Street, London W1S 3AN until July 21.

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