Equally as problematic or complex was my visit to the African collection at The Seattle Museum of Art yesterday (see 4/13/13 post). On a large wall next to shaman figures, Yoruban twin statuettes, and across the hall from plentiful African masks, a digital video played. A black woman is singing the aria “Addio del Passato bei sogni ridenti” (“Farewell lovely, happy dreams of the past”), the aria from Verdi’s La Traviata (The Fallen Woman), 1853. She is dressed in fabric that is made from African cloth and wears a 17th century white wig. She wanders through an opulent mansion as she sings. Flashbacks occur of presumably her husband’s extra-marital affairs (not part of La Traviata) and general debauchery. He is white as are his lovers and all are dressed in the same African cloth crafted into 17th century fashion. Complicated.
The video was created by Yinka Shonibare MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire). He was born in London in 1962 and moved to Lagos, Nigeria when he was three and returned to London when he was 16. He contracted a disease when he was 18 which left one side of his body paralyzed. He attended arts schools in England. Shonibare’s work explores the complicated intersections of colonialism, race, gender, and disabilities. Even the seemingly African fabrics, which are a trademark of much of the work he does, are dutch wax-printed cloth. “But actually, the fabrics are not really authentically African the way people think. They prove to have a crossbred cultural background quite of their own. And it’s the fallacy of that signification that I like. It’s the way I view culture – it’s an artificial construct,” says Shonibare.
So here amidst the “gifted” collection of sacred African objects, amidst the Yoruban masks and Ethiopian headrests and Malian headdresses, plays a video made by a man of two distinct cultures, two cultures of disparate power. The video shows an unnamed black actress lip-synching (perhaps a white opera singer’s voice) one of the most famous arias of all time. She is singing the farewell song of Verdi’s Violetta, a courtesan dying of tuberculosis, who has sacrificed her love to Alfredo in order to save the family’s “honor.” She is dressed in a 17th century gown made up of African, but really dutch fabric, wearing the distinctive wig of the upper class. She roams through a magnificently furnished manor house. The intercuts come from Shonibare’s other almost obsessive work regarding Lord Nelson, symbol of ultimate British Empire, patriotism, and sacrifice, who did, in fact, have many extra-marital affairs.
I’m still working to unpack this very complicated cultural pastiche and navigate its intersectionalities and complex iconography. When Shonibare was awarded the MBE in 2004, I can only imagine his complete and utter pleasure in accepting this award and its significant and outrageous paradox.