Debs Williams reviews the work of Turner Prize winner Yinka Shonibare and asks who wears the trousers
Last year I was talking to a woman who informed me that she was curator for an exhibition of Yinka Shonibare's work for a gallery in Rotterdam. I smiled to myself and thought 'Well, that is great for him'. It never crossed my mind that something rather fantastic was happening and that The Double Dutch exhibition would gain Yinka a place on the shortlist for the Turner Prize 2004.
I am familiar with Yinka's previous work and with him as an individual whilst he was arts officer for Shape London. Therefore, it was a pleasure to go to Tate Britain and see the work of a Disabled Artist, Non-white and not ashamed of that fact, in the far flung corner on Level 2.
There were however two surprises in store for me. Firstly, there was very little 'Conventional Art'. The piece was a film, supported by two pieces of artwork challenging the history of images and elegance. Un Ballo In Maschera (2004) is a film of a dance about the murder of King Gustav III of Sweden in 1792. The piece stood out, as it did not mention the war and Saddam or anything even vaguely 21st Century. It is a passionate, intimate and bright film. His signature cloth fills the screen and screamed at me from beginning to end. The shots were clumsy and immature; raw even with the dancers not always nailing their technique but this all added to the overall style and was soon forgotten. By focusing on the cloth no matter where it went, we are given so much of Yinka. There is no imposed soundtrack here either, we hear the feet hitting the wooden floor of the Chateau, and the repetition of the same incident (the murder) from different angles aided the whole process. Everyone was masked so you had no idea who was male or female. I enjoyed it immensely watching it 5 times on my visit.
The second and more intriguing element is that this is not an explicit exhibition by a Disabled Artist. You only know this if you listen to the audio guide accompanies the show, or at the end when you sit in comments corner watching the clips made for the C4 show. This was where the questions started to come for me, the biggest one being does an artist, from any artform, always have to be explicit in their work in order to be labelled Disabled? Is there something that happens to people when they reach international status regarding wider acceptance of their work? Is it a deliberate choice, is Yinka burying his past and trying to reinvent himself? How does one come to the decision that its time for a change to shift the balance and explore another part of their world that has influenced their artistic development, and earn the right to finally be an artist in your own right?
Does the Disability Arts sector have the right to impose its expectations onto any one individual, in particular those with multiple identities and cultural references? Some people will be tempted to say that it is a dropping or dumping of Disability on the road to success. I say its far more complex than that, and anyone who believes that being a black (in the generic sense) artist is any less intimidating, sidelining and victim to stereotyping than Disability or any other excluded group of which one may well be a part of, they are really missing the point.
I do not have any answers to these questions; I just have many more questions. The one thing I do know is that this is the new benchmark for Disability. People go and see the work and then tell me that it is not Disability Art or that it does not have the right to be there.
Maybe there is something to be learnt from this, could it be that it is not always about them some of it is us. Perception plays an enormous part in the equation.
Turner Prize 2004
Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) A film by Yinka Shonibare. Choreograhed by Lisa Torun
Until 23 December 2004Tate Britain. Box office: 020 7887 8888
Yinka Shonibare: www.yinkashonibarembe.com