The Shadow of Propaganda: A short interpretation of Yinka Shonibare’s The British Library
Commissioned by Mouthing Off Magazine
All artwork has a political dimension, no matter the intention of the creator or the work itself, all artwork is unavoidably political.
I had the privilege of viewing Yinka Shonibare’s magnificent installation The British Library before lockdown began. The Tate Modern houses the installation of 6,328 hardback books, each covered in the vibrant Dutch wax print fabric. The spines of 2,800 books are marked in gold leaf, detailing the names of first and second-generation immigrants who have made significant contributions to British culture, positioned alongside prominent individuals who have opposed immigration. Names such as Zadie Smith and Dame Helen Mirrenare adjacent to Nigel Farage and Oswald Mosley. The artwork encourages its viewers to participate in the discussion by submitting their own stories of immigration to The British Library website.
On surface level, it may appear Shonibare is one of the few artists to discuss immigration without promoting his own agenda. Not only did Shonibare present anti-immigration, neutral, and pro-immigration standpoints, he encouraged others to share their story via the library’s website. However, upon closer inspection, you will notice that the immigration reports and personal stories showcased were selected by Shonibare himself. In fact, the initial idea and the entire creation of the work has been shaped by Shonibare’s personal experience and political beliefs – whether that was intentional or not. A 2014 interview with Mark Sheerin suggests that Shonibare actually agrees his artwork is biased: “the artist is definitely reflected in the work, so your state of mind, your emotions, will be reflected”. However, this statement is soon contradicted: “I’m not excluding those who oppose immigration, because as an artist I think my job is to hear both sides of the argument. I can’t really take a moral stance as such”. The aims and outcomes of the artwork, according to Shonibare, seem to go round and round in a vicious, unclear cycle.
The Tate’s description of the work makes the imbalance clear; the installation “is a celebration of ongoing contributions made by immigrants to Britain, it acknowledges dissent, by including those who have railed against immigration”. Even the descriptions for the pro-immigration and anti-immigration viewpoints are disproportionate. Yet, The British Library website continues to imply that “this presentation transforms the space into a place of discovery and debate”, suggesting there is the opportunity to learn alternative opinions on the matter, to form subjective decisions based on a balanced argument. This disparity is also prominent in the type of information included. For instance, the website promotes moving stories from the Windrush Generation, aside a photograph of Nigel Farage emotionlessly pointing towards his anti-immigration poster. I have no issue with political artwork, however, it is dishonest to suggest this artwork takes a neutral standpoint when it is so clearly has a political agenda. In this case, it would be more appropriate to label The British Library an admiration of immigration, allowing viewers to participate in the convolutions of immigration through the perspective of Shonibare.
Shonibare’s inclusion of neutral or anti-immigration information appears so utterly unnecessary as it has been concluded in such a lackadaisical manner. In veiling his propaganda, he appears disingenuous. It is likely Shonibare included alternative viewpoints to encourage positive engagement. Viewers tend to internalise and positively react to information if they feel they have control over their interpretations, especially when a political agenda is suggested, not forced. It should be noted that at no point does Shonibare overtly state that he presents a ‘balanced argument’, yet the reiteration from himself and media coverage that his aim is to “open a dialogue on immigration” (Apollo Magazine 2014) implies this to be the case. In this suggestive phrase, Shonibare conceals the political bias of his art.
There is no doubt Shonibare’s installation is awe-inspiring; its sheer size and aesthetics mark it an effective piece of art. The work successfully provokes important questions regarding British heritage and culture, looking upon the country as a hybrid. However, if the intention of the work was to present a balanced argument to encourage debate and discussion in a neutral space, then unfortunately the installation has failed. As Shonibare himself states in the aforementioned interview “I have no political allegiances. I don’t belong to any political party. I don’t think artists can be dragged into such ideologies […] you can’t do your work properly, if you allow yourself to be drawn into any group”. The British Library is a critical reminder that even in the modern day, artwork and propaganda are not mutually exclusive.
Mark Sheerin 2014 Interview: https://theartsdesk.com/node/72993/view