Excavating African History
British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare has been at the forefront of the international art world for over ten years. In this time he has earnt CBE and RA status, he has been given the Whitechapel Art Icon award and, in 2010, was commissioned to make work for Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth. To coincide with Sthenjwa Luthuli’s second solo exhibition with Unit London – Inzalo Ye Langa: Birthplace of the Sun – we take a closer look at the similarities between Shonibare and Luthuli’s practices.
Sthenjwa Luthuli was born in Kwa-Zulu Natal, a coastal province in Eastern South Africa in 1991. At the time, the South African education system was mainly rooted in an understanding of Western history and culture, which Luthuli found stifling. He realised that in order to learn about the cultural practices of his ancestors he would have to teach himself, and set about researching different aspects of his African heritage. For the last ten years, his art has been delving into specific customs and spiritual teachings, using local materials and techniques. Although Yinka Shonibare was born in London in 1962 and was educated first at Byam Shaw School of Art (now Central St Martins) and then at Goldsmiths, he was always primarily interested in the artistic and cultural practises of his Nigerian ancestors, looking specifically at the effects colonisation had on both. Similarly to Luthuli, he wanted his work to ask questions about African cultural heritage and question how these ideas, feelings and aesthetics are viewed in contemporary society around the world.
Luthuli begins his process by tracing over large wooden boards with a pencil, filling the foreground space with the outline of headless human forms and the background with curved abstract patterning. Then, using a linocut tool capable of cutting wood, he begins to intricately chip away areas of the board, leaving sections raised. This kind of relief carving allows him to work with negative space, as the lower section is often left unpainted. He then takes a roller or paintbrush and colours the top layer. The resulting works are textured, colourful depictions of headless figures, floating in space. In this new exhibition, Sthenjwa has also built on the sculptural element of his work. Not wanting to waste any materials, he began to use the leftover sawdust from the carving, mixing it with wood glue to produce a clay-like texture. He then morphed this material into the shape of human bodies and attached the sculpture to some of the wooden boards.
Luthuli’s new headless sculpture works are no doubt indebted to Shonibare’s ‘Headless Man’ series: a number of headless mannequins adorned in African fabrics and patterning. The headless figures in Shonibare’s work are a direct reference to the French Revolution and the introduction of the guillotine; they are a reflection on systemic greed and its links to violence. For Luthuli, the headless figure represents several things: they are partly a commentary on educational shortcomings in Africa, and partly a reflection on the rootless, disembodied feelings of existing in a post-colonial society. These figures have no platform or foundation, they simply drift across the boards, suspended in space, the potentially grounding stories of their ancestral past either lost or destroyed. Both artists use this motif of the headless figure to explore the idea of home and history – and therefore the idea of identity – and examine the effects colonial rule and migration can have on one’s sense of self and a community’s shared identity.
Luthuli’s latest body of work for Unit London Inzalo Ye Langa takes the name of an ancient South African stone formation, thought to be the oldest manmade structure in the world, the physicality of which perhaps accounts for his shift further towards sculpture. Inzalo Ye Langa (also known as Birthplace of the Sun) originally functioned as a solar calendar: as the sun moved across the sky it would cast shadows off the stones indicating the date, time and major cultural events. Luthuli was drawn to this formation as it is a perfect example of the cultural and technological of his South African ancestors that has been lost over time and is gradually being recovered and celebrated. In much the same way, when Yinka Shonibare clothes his figures in beautiful and intricate African fabrics, or uses African textiles or ceramics, he is actively appreciating the cultural output of his ancestors, asking us to acknowledge the fact that colonialism has discoloured many of our perceptions of different cultures within Africa, as well as leaving many of us with prejudices surrounding technological and societal advancement in different eras of history.
Both Yinka Shonibare and Sthenjwa Luthuli create physical, sculptural work that combines the poignant motif of the headless figure with a celebration of African artistic materials and techniques. They want the viewer to enjoy the process of looking back and discovering new angles on past cultures. Their work is about the process of cultural excavation, brushing away the dusty debris of colonial history and finding something brighter and more complex underneath.