Hackney people: Yinka Shonibare

The Turner Prize-nominated artist talks about Hackney, Nigeria, art and politics

"I WAS born in London, but moved to Lagos, Nigeria’s capital, when I was three so I don’t have any clear memories of those early years,” says Yinka Shonibare. 

The British-Nigerian artist is famous for his Turner Prize-nominated work, characterised by its use of brightly coloured African fabrics. In 2010, his sculpture, ‘Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle’ (pictured below), occupied the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, and his work is exhibited in galleries across the world. It is all made in his studio in Hackney.

Yinka says: “By the time I moved back here, at 17, I was determined to become an artist. I’d never completely abandoned London, though. We’d visit in the summer and I used to buy art materials on the Charing Cross Road to take back to Nigeria.”

At school, the young Yinka shone in his art classes. He says: “I remember going to art workshops in the museum in Lagos and being really inspired. Plus, my parents didn’t want me to become an artist, so of course I had to do it!”

His determination won him a place at Wimbledon Art School. He describes getting in to the school as, ‘one of the happiest moments of my life'. Just three weeks into the course, however, he suffered an enormous setback.

“I got a virus infection in my spine,” he says. Adding: “It left me completely paralysed.” 

Yinka was in hospital for a year, gradually recovering a partial degree of mobility.

Now in a wheelchair, he says: “I suppose I developed a different way of working. Perhaps my art would look completely different if that hadn’t happened to me, it’s impossible to say.”

His determination, at any rate, was undiminished. When sufficiently recovered, he retook his art A-level, went to Byam Shaw College of Art (now Central Saint Martins), and then on to Goldsmiths College where he received his Masters and graduated as part of the ‘Young British Artists’ generation, alongside Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst.

Young artists typically find it hard to support themselves, but Yinka found a part-time job working with a disability-led arts organisation called Shape. It was a job he loved so much that when he received a grant of £30,000 – an extraordinary endowment enabling him to give up the day job and concentrate on his art – he was ‘actually a little reluctant’.

Shortly after, Yinka was exhibiting his work in a show in Chelsea when Charles Saatchi walked in. “He was practically the only person in the UK buying contemporary art back then, it was incredibly exciting,” explains Yinka.

Saatchi bought one of Yinka’s works and put it in his 1997 exhibition ‘Sensation’. The show was an international success and Yinka didn’t look back. In 2004, he was both shortlisted for the Turner Prize and awarded an MBE. 

The MBE wasn’t without controversy, however.

He says: “Lots of people from former British colonies argue that you should refuse honours. But I insist on including it in my name. Because the Empire is over – why should I be afraid of it today? Black people have been in the UK for many decades. I live here, I pay taxes here. It is better to be visible. Why should I hide?”

Having been elected a Royal Academician at the Royal Academy of Arts in 2013, he exhibited his first work there last summer: a life-size mannequin dressed in his trademark African print, balancing a toppling pile of cakes on his back.

Called Cake Man (II) (pictured above), it was a comment on the banking crisis and greed: “You can’t escape being political in your work,” Yinka muses.

So where does he create his art? Yinka has had a studio just off Broadway Market for the last 15 years. It also includes a unique ‘Guest Projects’ space, where Yinka invites applications from other people to hold group shows. 

He says: “The art world has become so individualistic, so commercially driven. I wanted to create an escape from that, somewhere to experiment and even to fail.

“I’m not bothered who the person is ... famous or unknown, professional artist or not. As long as it’s a good idea. If it has an educational aspect, something for the community, so much the better.”

Take that as your invitation readers...