Postcolonial Identity Free Essay Sample on (2022)

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“The postcolonial artist is a mirror distorted by history” (Njami, 2012:25). Simon Njami further expresses that the questions confronting artists from formerly colonized nations manage the assortment of pictures readily available. With reference to this statement by Njami, this examination paper intends to explore specific works by the contemporary African artist, Yinka Shonibare, trying to uncover how postcolonial specialists execute a half and half postcolonial personality inside their centerpieces. Yinka Shonibare is a British-Nigerian artist whose work explores cultural identity, authenticity, colonialism, and postcolonialism. Considering Njami’s quote around ‘distortion’, Clive Kellner writes that there is no singular definition of contemporary African art, there are in fact several (Kellner, 2007:23). Contemporary African artists are thus a product of postcolonial, post-apartheid and post-modern society (Kellner, 2007:23), thus the contemporary (postcolonial) African artist is distorted.

This paper will also look at the idea of the colonial gaze what it means and how it can be seen in the artists’ work. The idea of the other how the artist uses the ‘other’ to show his ’otherness’. This paper will look at how the ‘other’ is created in the artist identity. This paper will also show how hybridity is made clear in the artist himself and his work, how the artist is a hybrid and how the work is hybrid as well. Finally, this paper will look at the notions of Afrocentricity and Afrofuturism, what they mean to the reader and how the artist draws on these notions to create a body of work that is both Afrocentric while being a hybrid from the artist identity and how his work can be viewed in an Afrofuturistic way.

It is essential to first situate ourselves within the realm of the postcolonial context as postcolonial theory is crucial to understanding Shonibare’s, along with all postcolonial artists’, work. Key concepts such as the colonial gaze, the ‘Other, hybridity, Afropolitanism and Afrocentricity will be defined and explored through the lens contribution of postcolonial theorists such as Frantz Fanon, Homi Bhabha, and Achille Mbembe. This paper will firstly define these terms and provide a brief background aiming to reveal how the postcolonial artist is in themselves first a hybrid of identity and how this identity is translated in their work.

Postcolonial Theory

Colonization of the African continent is seen as an immense milestone in the development of Africa itself (Khapoya, 2012:99). African people consider the impact of colonization on them to perhaps be the most important factor in understanding the present condition of the continent and themselves (Khapoya, 2012:99). It is noted that colonialism has largely influenced the way African people view themselves and how they identify with one another, thus in a postcolonial world, African people are trying to make sense of this identity which is most visually made aware through art, as this paper will further explore.

Colonial Gaze

‘Gaze’, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary of English, is a particular perspective considered as embodying certain aspects of the relationship between the observer and observed (Oxford University Press: 2010:726). The gaze activates a certain power in the observer over the observed. Njami states that the concept of the gaze is imperative, as all gazes are fragmentary and we are the isolated element of the puzzle whose general contours will always escape from us (Njami, 2012:24).

Frantz Fanon, an Algerian postcolonial theorist, demonstrates this ‘fragmented identity’ in his writings about the colonial subject. He states that the colonial subject’s identity is constructed by the colonist, because of this, the colonial subject (who is caught in the oppressor’s gaze) is split, distorted and disturbed, unable to reunite with his self-image (Malpas, 2005: 69). However, the colonist’s identity is also disturbed, shaken by the colonial subject whose humanity has been denied (Malpas, 2005: 71). Fanon suggests that subjectivity is generated by the interaction with others that take place in the sphere of culture, which in turn leads to an identity that is fragmentary (Malpas, 2005: 71).

The ‘Other’

It is said that we are driven by forces over which we have no conscious control, our identity is formed by the recognition we receive from others (Malpas, 2005: 69). Edward Said’s foundational work, Orientalism, reveals the extent to which knowledge of the ‘orient’ (now the Middle East), as it was produced and spread in Europe, was an ideological support mechanism of colonial power (Loomba, 1998:43). Thus Europe was able to create this identity of the non-European, the ‘Other’, based on the way they wished it to be represented, this was central in the production of their own European culture as well as in the maintenance of hegemony over the other lands (Loomba, 1998:44).

The dialogue between the ‘self’ and ‘other’ has hugely influenced studies of colonial discourses, it has been traced to informing colonial attitudes towards the ‘others’ and forms the point of questioning Western knowledge’s categories and assumptions (Loomba, 1998:47). As this dialogue exists so deeply in people from postcolonial countries, it is understanding that this dialogue is a contributing factor in the way that they view and identify with themselves and thus how they portray themselves to the rest of the world, evidently seen through art, music, and literature. Said’s notion of Orientalism is used here to clarify and define the postcolonial term of the ‘Other’.

In order to understand this fascination with ‘otherness, Stuart Hall poses the questions of “Why does difference matter?” The first account comes from linguistics, adopted from Saussure, he states that meaning is relational; it is the difference between white and black which signifies and carries meaning (Hall, 2013:224). However one pole of the binary is always seen as the dominant one and thus there is always a relation of power between these poles (Hall, 2013:225). Secondly, meaning is established through dialogue, everything said and meant is modified by the interaction with another being (Hall, 2013:225). Meaning arises due to the ‘differences’ in the participants within a dialogue, thus we need the ‘Other’ in order to establish meaning (Hall, 2013:225). Thirdly, culture depends on giving things meaning by organizing them into classificatory systems, this makes use of binary opposites, if something does not ‘fit’ it needs to be rid of, the same applies to many cultures against ‘others’ (Hall, 2013:226). Lastly, the ‘Other’ is fundamental to the health of the self, our subjectiveness is formed with this internalization of the ‘Other’ (Hall, 2013:227).

Thus, the oppressors during colonial rule used the definition of the ‘Other’ as a means to identify with themselves, in cases that if the ‘Other’ was one thing they were the direct ‘positive’ opposite, using this to distinguish clear boundaries between them and the others.

Hybridity, Afropolitanism, and Afrocentricity

Leela Gandhi argues that postcolonialism pursues a post-nationalism reading of the colonial encounter by focusing on the global mixture of cultures and identities strengthened by imperialism (Ghandi, 1998:129). Postcolonialism uses a range of terms to examine the subtle intimacies between the colonizer and colonized, such terms being ‘hybridity’ and ‘diaspora’ (Ghandi, 1998:129).

Fanon insistence on the basic instability and inventiveness of anti-colonial conditions is reworked by various theorists to produce the discourse of hybridity (Ghandi, 1998:130). Focus is placed on the postcolonial subject being a new entity, produced by two conflicting belief systems (Ghandi, 1998:130). Hall argues that anti-colonial identities do not originate from pure and stable essence, they are rather produced in reaction to the happenings of a traumatic breach in history and culture (Ghandi, 1998:130). Hybridity translates into an intermediate zone where anti-colonial politics agenda was initially communicated (Bhabha as citing in Gandhi, 1998:131). This ‘in-between’ notion brought forth by hybridity is accompanied by the concept of ‘diaspora’ (Ghandi, 1998:131).

Achille Mbembe simply writes about the idea of hybridity and diaspora through the notion of the worlds in movement. This phenomenon has two sides: that of dispersion and immersion. The concept of dispersal involved the movement of not only foreigners but of various cultures on the African continent (Mbembe, 2007:27). The other aspect is the immersion. This involved people from various countries, settling on the continent. Over time, links with their places of origin became complex, resulting in cultural hybrids (Mbembe, 2007:27). It is clear that both a part of African history lies within the rest of the world and that the history of rest of the world is also manifested on this continent (Mbembe, 2007:28), creating the diaspora filled with cultural hybrids.

Our part of belonging and being in the world has been marked by the interweaving of worlds. This awareness of the interweaving, the relativization of primary roots and the way of embracing foreignness and the ability to recognize your face in that foreigner is what underlies the term, Afropolitanism(Mbembe, 2007:28). ‘Afropolitan’ culture translates into a transnational culture, it is the way of being in the world, not taking feeling self-pity in the present, but still being aware of the past (Mbembe, 2007:29). This concept of Afropolitanism lives within Shonibare’s work as the majority of his work represents a transnational culture, embedded with references of Africa and Europe.

Shonibare’s work is also Afrocentric in its nature, Afrocentricity as theorized by Molefi Asante, is a transforming instrument, transforming people’s beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors, making everything new (Asante, 2003:4). It is the first and only reality of African people, a rediscovery (Asante, 2003:4). Okwui Enwezor writes that it is very crucial for African artists to belong to a milieu (Enwezor, 2015:22). Belong to a milieu is a very important space of belonging and a transnational space where these artists can invent and generate new communities of discourse Enwezor, 2015:22).

After creating a more comprehensible perspective of postcolonial key concepts, this paper will further explore these concepts in relation to postcolonial hybridity that embodies Yinka Shonibare and his work, and through this, it will aim to reveal how the artist’s work, and many alike, is contextualized within the framework of postcolonial identity construction.

Yinka Shonibare: The Postcolonial Hybrid

“By reappropriating their own bodies, African artist negate stereotypes and turn them into realities. A blackbody is Black because it is asserted as such. In this way is much as the body matter becomes a signifier, but the way in which the artist presents it. The body becomes a metaphor” (Njami 2012:24).

‘Complicity and protest are a paradox within myself,’ explains Yinka Shonibare, (Hemmings, 2007: 34). Shonibare was born in London but raised in Lagos, Nigeria. His art is mainly influenced by his formative years spent in between the two cities (Hemmings, 2007: 34), which labels him a post-cultural hybrid.

Referring back to Njami’s quote about the postcolonial artist being a mirror distorted by history, it is clear to see that Shonibare suffers from this fragmented identity living between two cities, between the ‘us’ and the ‘Other’. This confusion of who he really is is illustrated in his own remarks: “Although I speak Yoruba very well,’ Shonibare said, ‘I think in English sometimes and it’s rather strange, you know. You move from one way of thinking. Then you think in Yoruba; sometimes you think in English and you dream in English sometimes. It’s that kind of existence that in a way my work tries to talk about … My work is actually not about the representation of politics but the politics of representation’ (Boateng, 2009: 55).

It is evident to observe that Shonibare’s, living in the diaspora, sense of belonging and of creating is marked by the interweaving of worlds as theorized by Mbembe. This interweaving or cultural hybridity will be explored throughout this paper by taking a close in-depth look at the mechanisms Shonibare uses in his art to convey this idea of the postcolonial hybrid. Specific emphasis will be placed on his headless mannequin sculptures, especially the artwork Scramble for Africa, 2003 (figure 1). By carefully examining this one artwork, this paper intends to disclose recurring themes of cultural hybridity very evident in Shonibare’s work.

It is also interesting to note that Shonibare has accepted the title of MBE (Member of the British Empire). This is an example of his sharp-witted ability to both critique and contributes to the complexities of his identity (Hemmings, 2007: 34). This very British title now sits ironically behind his very ‘non-British’ name. This ‘ironic composition’ of Shonibare’s name immediately visually mirrors the cultural hybridity that is so evident in many contemporary African artists.

Scramble For Africa, 2003

In Figure 1 we can see a table of figures arranged seated around a table dressed in the aforementioned fabric. The figures can be identified as men because of the style of clothes but most importantly the historic significance of the title. The artist is making reference to the Berlin Conference where the colonial powers ‘divided’ up Africa into the various parts that they wanted. The artist is showing how Africa was used as a playground for the imperial powers to make their way with. He shows this by mimicking the conference. The figures are headless this is a metaphor for how the colonizers divided Africa as they did not use any sympathetic thought whatsoever in these arbitrary divisions. The colonizers were only thinking about themselves and not the millions of people they killed. Naturally, Yinka Shonibare uses his famous fabric to show how he is now a hybrid as a result of this conference. He shows how the implications of the Berlin Conference are still prevalent in today’s world. He is thus the ‘maker’ of the artwork and the ‘viewer’.

In figure 1 we can see how the artist has, in some way, reappropriated the idea of the ‘black body’ by using these fabrics that are associated with ‘Africanness’. The figures around the table are dressed in these batik fabrics. As this paper has mentioned before these fabrics are a type of hybrid themselves. By dressing the colonizers around the table in these fabrics the artist is commenting on how the colonial gaze of the oppressors during the Berlin Conference fetishized the African continent and refused it to a board game. Yinka Shonibare also shows how the fabric makes a comment on how the oppressors viewed Africa and ‘Africanness’ and how this idea was ‘given’ to the colonized African people as a way to view themselves. Therefore in contemporary times, we can see that the post-colonial gaze of how the African people were oppressed and how they are now an amalgamation of colonial ideas about their own countries creates this disjointed narrative and hybridity of their identities of what it means to be ‘African’. The fabrics are very poignant for use in the artwork as they mimic this hybridization of identity and meaning.

Shonibare’s art consists of visual templates and histories of colonial cultures that are reworked with content and references that reveal another side of the story (Hemmings, 2007: 34) Scramble for Africa (figure 1) consists of fourteen headless supposed ‘gentlemen’ sculpted out of full-sized fiberglass (Boateng, 2009: 53). They are seated around a large conference table with the map of Africa imprinted on it as they debate or quarrel over how to slice up the continent, according to their own national interests. The figures are dressed in tasteful European-style clothes, made out of African wax prints manufactured in the Netherlands and Britain (Boateng, 2009: 54).

Scramble for Africa is an obvious representation of the irrational act that took place in 1884-85 when a group of European powers met in Berlin to divide up the continent of Africa for their own

egocentric interests. However, through this artwork, Shonibare wanted to showcase how history repeats itself and states that when he was making it, he was thinking about American imperialism and the need in the west for resources such as oil (Boateng, 2009: 54). Thus essentially, Scramble for Africa is a piece about people with superior power deciding how to drastically affect other peoples’ lives without even consulting with them, addressing both the past and the present.

Headless Figures And Wax Prints

Headless figures are a recurring image in Shonibare’s works, which immediately represent a form of irrationality or even universality of the figures. The figures seem to be performing actions without thinking about them and are thus not given a face in order to symbolize a comprehensive state of being, that what happened in the past is already happening in the future. This is evidently seen in the artwork, How to Blow Up Two Heads at Once (figure 2). However, Shonibare states that his headless figures are actually influenced by the French Revolution. During this time, the heads of noblemen were chopped with a guillotine and therefore in an amusing way, Shonibare wanted to bring back this notion of the guillotine, as it adds a dimension of uncertainty to his works (Boateng, 2009: 55). He brings back the idea of the guillotine for the use of the historical icons of power. “It’s witty in a knowing type of way”, Shonibare states (Boateng, 2009: 55). The fact that the figures are always dressed in medieval European-style clothing also continuously gives reference to the past.

Shonibare’s frequent use of wax-print fabrics and headless mannequins is usually interpreted as a critique of the economic inequalities and abuses of colonialism, and a warning about the continuous imbalance in our present postcolonial period (Secomb, 2013:194). The skin color of the mannequins seem to be a blend of back and white skin tones, therefore not pointing to a specific connection (Hemmings, 2007: 36). This is a very obvious tactic used by Shonibare not to ‘racialize’ the figures and it can be immediately observed that the figures portray hybridity without even having to read a lot into each artwork. Thus each artwork consists of layers of various meanings.

These layers are noticed in the sculpture, Gay Victorians (figure 3), makes reference to the 1800’s bustle-style dress, but according to Hemmings, Shonibare also uses it to reference Saartjie Baartman, the female African whose body was ridiculed. Thus, these vibrant artworks include layers of meanings, some being humorous and entertaining juxtaposed with stories of cultural violence and abuse (Hemmings, 2007: 36).

Another major recurring element in his works is the African wax-print fabrics which serve as a symbol of the complexities of authentic identity within the contemporary culture (Hemmings, 2007: 34). The prints are not authentically African as they are manufactured in Europe but inspired by Indonesian batiks, thus creating a misleading perception and fragmenting the figures to an even greater extent. The use of these fabrics creates a hybrid image in which Africa is interleaved with Europe and/or Europe becomes ‘Africanised’ (Secomb, 2013:194). These fabrics thus confuse any notion of originality and cultural uniqueness, pointing to what Bhabha has named ‘culture’s in between’ and suggesting that cultures are always and from the beginning mixtures of different cultures (Secomb, 2013:197).

The ‘insertion’ is not simply of African fabric but a hybrid (Indonesian – Dutch – African) material into European scenes, this challenges the separation of cultures and poses the concept of how they may be all intertwined (Secomb, 2013:197). This is clearly demonstrated in Scramble for Africa (figure 1) and Leisure Lady – with ocelots (figure 4). Both of these artworks are conveying a ‘European’ activity, that of either dividing the African continent into segments or as simple as walking one’s dogs, but the headless figures, hybrid fabric used and the use of ocelots instead of dogs, displays so much more than merely a European culture, it displays one of hybridity and mixture, an ‘in-between’ space as Bhabha describes.

These ‘in-between spaces’ provide the ground for expanding strategies of selfhood, singular or communal, that initiate new signs of identity and innovative sites of collaboration in the act of defining the idea of society itself (Bhabha, 2012:2). Bhabha further states that art that creates a sense of the ‘new’ as a rebellious act of translation does not look at the past as an aesthetic precedent, it rather renews the past, redefining it as an ‘in-between’ space that innovates the present (Bhabha, 2012:10). Shonibare’s art does just this, he takes an element from the past (for example, the head execution during the French Revolution, creating the headless figures) and redefines it with the use of these hybrid materials, creating an ‘in-between’ space. Merging the European with the African and Indonesian, the ‘us’ with the ‘Other’.


Frantz Fanon states that in the colonial situation, the desire for the ‘Other’, demonstrated as racism, turns the subject into an object in the presence of other objects, which in turn completely shatters identity (Malpas, 2005: 71). People’s identities are therefore stripped away due to colonial rule, this fragmentation of the self is clearly portrayed in Scramble for Africa and the rest of Shonibare’s work. Like Fanon, Shonibare had to endlessly create a new subjectivity to fit in and be recognized. Himself, together with the work he produces, reflects a self that is decentered and that only makes sense when it is in relation to another.

Through analyzing Scramble for Africa, it is evident to see that identities are created and recreated through the hybrid of Africa, Indonesia, and Europe. The subject is no longer merely a self but already ‘othered’ through this process which creates different associations and connections (Secomb, 2013:213). Not only is this made apparent in Scramble for Africa, but in Shonibare’s entire ‘headless-mannequin’ series.

Fanon had stated, many years before Edward Said, that Europe is the creation of the ‘Third World’, meaning that the material wealth and labor form the colonies fuelled Europes’ prosperity (Loomba, 1998:46). Looking into this statement, it could be argued that this resonates within Shonibare’s headless-mannequin series. European figures dressed in European-styled clothing, however, patterned with African references. This subtly hinting at the intertwined worlds of Mbembe, as much as Africa’s identity lies within the European gaze, Europe’s identity was fuelled by their colonies, thus Africa will always live within them too. Shonibare’s work evidently displays this fragmented identity, identities interleaved with one another. A postcolonial hybrid identity is displayed not only in his art but in his entire being.

The Philosopher Franz Fanon said that Europe is the one that makes the Third World. For Saaid Orientalism is a political view that separates the Orient to the West. Said makes the point that Orientalism critiques the notion of the west as being backward, primitive, quaint and noble. As the East is always seen as different from the West.

Said makes clear that by engaging in discussions on topics related to the Orient that have a Western influence the discussion can be tilted back so as to make it equal. Said states the colonialism was an ideological construct.

From all this, we can see how the world in itself is a hybrid. This hybridity was caused by the colonial powers of the Victorian era. Their notions are still with us today.

This research paper proved how the artist Yinka Shonibare MBE performs a hybrid postcolonial identity against the backdrop of the postcolonial context. It also investigated the notions of the colonial gaze, the notion of the ‘other’ and ‘otherness’, Hybridity and Afrocentricity.

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