Yinka Shonibare CBE: End of Empire – Royal Academy

Since the 1990s, the British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare CBE RA has developed opulently executed sculptures, installations, colourful collages, and theatrically staged photographs and films. Illustrated by two hundred full-colour reproductions of his work, Yinka Shonibare CBE: End of Empire offers an up-close encounter with the tensions and history that motivate this singular artist, tracing colonialism and its consequences for leaders, worldviews, and body images in his oeuvre.

Yinka Shonibare, born on August 9, 1962, in London, England, is a British-Nigerian contemporary artist known for his multidisciplinary work exploring themes of identity, colonialism, globalization, and post-colonialism. His art encompasses sculpture, painting, photography, installation, and film, often incorporating vibrant African wax-print fabrics, which have become his signature material.

Due to his family’s dual heritage, Shonibare spent his formative years shuttling between Nigeria and the United Kingdom. This exposure to diverse cultures and environments profoundly influenced his artistic perspective and thematic interests.

In 1984, Shonibare graduated in London with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the Byam Shaw School of Art (now part of Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design). Later, he pursued a Master of Fine Arts degree at Goldsmiths College, University of London, graduating in 1991.

Throughout his career, Shonibare has interrogated colonialism’s complex legacies and enduring impact on contemporary society. One of his most iconic motifs is the use of African wax-print fabric, which he employs to challenge stereotypes and explore issues of authenticity and cultural hybridity.

His seminal series “The Diary of a Victorian Dandy” (1998) featured life-size mannequins dressed in Victorian-era costumes made from African wax-print fabric. Through this work, Shonibare subverts traditional notions of British identity and highlights the interconnectedness of cultures shaped by colonial histories.

Another significant installation, “Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle” (2010), commissioned for the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square, reimagines Horatio Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory with a twist—the sails are made from colourful African wax-print fabric. This monumental work symbolizes Britain’s multicultural society and maritime history while inviting viewers to reconsider notions of national identity.

Shonibare’s art has been exhibited extensively worldwide, including at prestigious institutions such as Tate Modern and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

In addition to his artistic practice, Shonibare is a committed advocate for arts education and cultural exchange. He has been a trustee for various arts organizations and initiatives, promoting greater diversity and inclusion within the art world.

Throughout his career, Shonibare has received numerous accolades, including the Turner Prize nomination in 2004 and his appointment as Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2019 for his services to art.

Yinka Shonibare’s work continues to provoke critical dialogue and challenge prevailing narratives surrounding race, colonialism, and identity in contemporary society. Through his innovative use of materials and incisive conceptual inquiries, he remains a pioneering figure in the global art landscape, inspiring audiences to confront the complexities of history and culture.

This book is part of a curated reading list by Yinka Shonibare, CBE RA, created especially for the RA Shop.

Read more and shop the full selection here.