It’s me, Celine. On Sunday we had class in the morning, followed by a visit to Trafalgar square to see the fourth plinth. We then went on to the ICA. Ended the evening with a dinner of bangers and mash at Whitehall with Iain and caught a showing of The King’s Speech with Emily.
Yinka Shonibare's Nelson's Ship in a Bottle is currently on the plinth. It is a recreation of the ship Nelson commanded in the battle of Trafalgar. This ship, however, has sails made of brightly colored and patterned fabric of the kind commonly found in West Africa. I've included a picture below I took several years ago in Benin that demonstrates an array of such fabrics. On the plaquard next to the plinth, Shonibare explains that this work "considers the birth of the British empire and multiculturalism in Britain today". This seems overly joyful and celebratory
compared to much of Shonibare's work, which consists of headless life-sized dummies shooting, raping, or dehumanizing other dummies (all clad in elaborate Victorian dress made from African fabrics). Like the rest of his oeuvre, a more complex, possibly sinister interpretation lies not far from the surface. The British empire profited hugely from the transatlantic slave trade, ferrying manufactured goods, captured men and women, and teas, coffee and spices in a triangle spanning three continents. This history is certainly embedded in the idea of multiculturalism. But there is also a confusing mix of cultures that has cropped up over the centuries; a confusion that is captured perfectly by Shonibare's use of the 'African' fabrics. While these fabrics have been sold the world over as African, their history is much more nuanced. Their origin lies in the woven patterns of African tribal ware. The patterns were reproduced in the west using batik (a fabric dying process) and over the years have been modernized; bright colors and complex, intense patterns are now commonplace, with unexpected images such as telephones showing up in the prints. Furthermore, the most expensive, highly regarded of these fabrics are produced in Holland, not in Africa. So what has come to be seen as a symbol of a cultural tradition is in fact a network of international relationships spanning several centuries.
Emily has asked us to propose a piece for exhibition on the plinth. Prepare for genius.
I would propose a large, slumped bone, broken in two and tied back together with an anchor hitch. The entire piece would be made of cast rubber. I believe this proposal would touch on the physical toll of war, and would symbolize the role of war in nation building. I am also fascinated by the symbolic power of the knot in relation to the body; knotting a bone is not only absurd, it is ineffective, yet knotting is a form of repair commonly used to mend things in the external world.
Alternately, I would propose that a larger than life bronze cast of Nelson's missing arm be displayed horizontally on the plinth.