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Hosting Ideas for Progress: highlights from the conversation between Yinka Shonibare CBE and Mark Sealy OBE

Portrait of Yinka Shonibare CBE RA smiling at the camera. He is wearing a purple shirt and the background is out of focus.
  • Written byKat Smith
  • Published date 15 February 2022
Portrait of Yinka Shonibare CBE RA smiling at the camera. He is wearing a purple shirt and the background is out of focus.
Portrait of Yinka Shonibare CBE RA, Image courtesy of G.A.S. Foundation, Photography by Andrew Esiebo. © G.A.S. Foundation and Andrew Esiebo.

As part of our ongoing Research Season, we had the honour of holding a Keynote event - ‘Hosting Ideas for Progress’ - with renowned British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare CBE, in conversation with photographer, curator and academic Mark Sealy OBE.

UAL welcomed Yinka to learn about his vision for sharing respect, knowledge and cultural debate between artists, curators, academics, practitioners and local professionals internationally.

The speakers

Yinka Shonibare CBE RA is a British-Nigerian artist living in the UK. His work explores cultural identity, colonialism and post-colonialism within the contemporary context of globalisation.

Mark Sealy OBE is the director of Autograph ABP, a Professor of Photography Rights and Representation and a core member of UAL's Photography and the Archive Research Centre (PARC).

This event was a PARC The Decolonising Lens event. The series brings together a range of guests from across the creative sectors to both discuss and challenge traditional academic and cultural canons. Presented by Mark, the series takes its name from his seminal work, Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time (2019).

Professor Pratap Rughani hosted the event. He is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, as well as the Associate Dean of Research and Professor of Documentary Practices at London College of Communication (LCC), UAL.

“We want this to be as open a space as possible”

Professor David Mba - Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research, Knowledge Exchange and Enterprise at UAL – introduced the session, calling the wider Research Season schedule of events "a thought-provoking programme which showcases the rich diversity of the University's research."

Before welcoming Mark and Yinka, Pratap anticipated the Q&A following the conversation: “We want this to be as open a space as possible,” he said. “Please don't feel that you need to be an academic or an expert or a curator to intervene."  Pratap’s encouragement is a core goal of UAL's Research Season – the aim is to open research, knowledge exchange and conversations to all, making it accessible and engaging for those in and out of the research sphere.

I’m not going to be your victim” - using satire to portray Black agency

Mark started by asking Yinka about his early satirical work, including ‘Untitled (Effnik)’ (1997) and ‘Diary of a Victorian Dandy’ (1998), in which he plays with traditional Western portraiture.

The latter is a series of 5 photographs depicting Yinka playing the role of a dandy – the name given to Victorian men overly concerned with their appearance and consumed by leisurely hobbies. Through the series, Yinka subverts the notion of ‘otherness’ during the Victorian era by surrounding his Black dandy with white servants and acolytes.

A photo tableau of Yinka Shonibare standing in the middle of an ornate room with various people in maid costumes and suits etc. pandering to him.
'Diary of a Victorian Dandy: 14.00 hours' © Yinka Shonibare

"The point of my practice... there's a bit of parody there, there's a bit of humour there, there's satire, but it's also essentially about Black agency and taking control of the way in which we have been represented throughout history,” said Yinka.

This was a time when, as Yinka said, many Black artists were not visible in mainstream spaces and commercial galleries. "What was important at that time was the deconstruction of these grand narratives - so that we were, in effect, occupying so-called spaces that we were not meant to occupy and doing that deliberately."

Mark weighed in - "I think there's a sense of deep critical underpinning which pulls apart the infrastructure, almost, the artistic historical infrastructure of these institutions, by daring them to engage."

Yinka said that after being tired of seeing Black people negatively portrayed through imagery, "I didn't want to make those interventions on the margins. I've always wanted to make my interventions in the mainstream. And right in front of the British public."

"Satire is a very important way of dealing with all these issues because there is a sense in which one is expected, as somebody of African origin, to be angry, to be the victim, you know - it just seems to be what's expected.

"I'm not giving you that - I'm not going to be your victim."

An art installation of mannequins without heads around a wooden table. They are all wearing traditional African dress.
'Scramble for Africa' © Yinka Shonibare CBE RA

What can we learn from Africa? The Yinka Shonibare Foundation and knowledge exchange 

Yinka also spoke about the Yinka Shonibare Foundation (YSF) - his UK registered charity dedicated to facilitating international cultural exchange and supporting creative practices through residencies, collaborations and education projects.

"I feel that prejudice, by and large, is based on ignorance. It's based on people not having an equal cultural exchange," said Yinka on the motivations behind setting up the Foundation. "I want to create a platform for international exchange where artists of all platforms, all disciplines can actually go to Nigeria and start a dialogue with the artists locally, and they can make work."

When asked about how we can learn from Africa, Yinka said that popular culture in the West has helped teach people about the continent and its culture, but "imagine the possibilities if people could actually go to Africa.

"I'm hoping that there'll be many more collaborations with academic institutions and academics - we're not actually restricting this [YSF] to artists as such - we're also want to have people doing research.

"It's essentially about knowledge exchange. Professors who can bring some skills to exchange. Possibly exchanges between universities out there, and universities here."

A photo of men around a table laughing and smiling.
G.A.S. Launch at the Ecology Green Farm, Ijebu

"Change, for me, lives in those who are prepared to act and say and do”

Mark and Yinka also spoke about the absence of African artists in cultural institutions today, years on from Yinka’s initial works. Yinka predicts it’ll take the next 100 years or so to fill the gap that should be filled, “and yet, we are embodied in every wealthy stately home or in every grand neoclassical architecture in London - our sweat and blood built those things.”

"It's not some kind of entitled piece of liberal gift to allow us into these institutions,” agreed Mark. “There is absolutely, fundamentally, no institution without that blood, sweat, and bodies in spaces - you are ingrained in that space.”

Later in the Q&A, a question is asked about what is needed to change representation within cultural institutions - "I think for me, cultural institutions reflect the people that run them,” Mark said. “So, if we want to see spaces change, then the demographic of those institutions has to change.”

Pratap also asked the two what they believe must change within educational settings, like universities.

Yinka spoke on the importance of balancing education with empowerment: "It's important that we highlight and challenge history but also to prepare people for skills beyond those atrocities. We need to actually teach people empowerment skills so that they can actually manage in the world and have real practical skills to improve their own situations, both in terms of profile within society and economist resources to empower themselves."

"Change for me lives in those who are prepared to act and say and do,” adds Mark. "I think there needs to be a kind of quiet discomfort with the relationship so that both parties are learning and sharing in that space.”

Continuing Research Season 

Pratap closed the event by encouraging the audience to explore UAL's ongoing Research Season.

Throughout March 2022, UAL Colleges and Institutes are opening research and Knowledge Exchange to staff, students and the public. Events are exploring the broad theme of Earth and Equity: integrating environmental and racial justice.

Sign up to our events and read about the innovative ways our academics and students are tackling the challenges that they see on the Research Season webpage.

Hosting Ideas For Progress with Yinka Shonibare in conversation with Mark Sealy