Yinka Shonibare CBE

The Swing (after Fragonard)


Not on display

Yinka Shonibare CBE born 1962
Mannequin, cotton costume, 2 slippers, swing seat, 2 ropes, oak twig and artificial foliage
Unconfirmed: 3300 × 3500 × 2200 mm
Purchased 2001


The Swing (after Fragonard) is an installation in which a life-size headless female mannequin, extravagantly attired in a dress in eighteenth-century style made of bright African print fabric, reclines on a swing suspended from a verdant branch attached to the gallery ceiling. Beneath her, a flowering vine cascades to the floor. The figure is static, poised at what appears to be the highest point of her swing’s forward trajectory. Her right knee is bent, while her left leg stretches out in front of her, causing her skirts to ride up. She appears to have just kicked off her left shoe, which hangs mid-air in front of the figure, suspended on invisible wire.

Yinka Shonibare’s The Swing (after Fragonard), made in Sheffield in 2001, is based on an iconic Rococo painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing (Les hazards heureux de l’escarpolette), 1767 (Wallace Collection P430), which depicts an aristocratic young woman in a frothy pink dress sweeping through a garden on a swing. In her abandon, she has kicked off one tiny pink shoe; Fragonard catches the moment the shoe arcs through the air. The woman is watched by two men; one pushes her from behind a tree, while the other lies in the foliage beneath her, precisely and mischievously placed to look up her billowing skirts.

Shonibare’s work paraphrases this scene, replicating part of the composition in three dimensions. He has preserved the woman on the swing, her shoe in mid-flight, and some of the foliage that surrounds her, but excluded the two men and much of the garden. The woman is dressed in African print fabric, representing a different kind of decorative opulence from Fragonard’s silk and lace. This creates a disjunction; the sculpture is both familiar and strange.

The artist’s intention is that the piece should be viewed straight on, with the figure seen from the same angle Fragonard depicted it in the painting. However, because the installation is rendered in three dimensions, viewers can walk around the swinging woman in the gallery space, placing themselves in the position of either of the men in the painting. The audience becomes directly implicated in the erotic voyeurism of Fragonard’s image, and, like the reclining man in the painting, can also look up the woman’s skirt. The mannequin wears knickers made of the same fabric as her underskirt.

The sensuality of the original painting is maintained and critiqued in Shonibare’s version. The opulence of her dress and the frivolity of her gesture, swinging languidly across the gallery, make Shonibare’s figure a direct translation of the Fragonard original. However, Shonibare’s coquette has no head, which may allude to the literal fate that awaited the aristocracy after the French Revolution; only twenty-five years after Fragonard painted The Swing, the guillotine was introduced in Paris to more efficiently execute royalist sympathisers.

The mannequin’s skin is dark, and her dress and shoes are made out of brightly coloured African print Dutch wax printed cotton. Dutch wax textiles have been a signature in Shonibare’s work for many years, and represent the cultural hybridity central to his practice. The fabrics have a complex history. Indonesian batik techniques were appropriated and industrialised by the Dutch during the colonial period. English manufacturers copied the Dutch model, making fabrics in the Dutch wax style in Manchester, using a predominantly Asian work force to produce designs derived from traditional African textiles. The fabrics were then exported to West Africa, and became popular during the African independence movement, when their bright colours and geometric patterns became associated with the struggle for political and cultural independence. Today they continue to be sold in Africa and in markets in New York and London. Their designs are constantly adapted: one of the layers of fabric in the skirt in this work has a Chanel logo motif.

Shonibare was born in London and grew up in the UK and Nigeria. He describes himself as ‘a postcolonial hybrid’ (quoted in Perrella, ‘Be-Muse. Between Mimesis and Alterity’, in Yinka Shonibare: Be-muse, p.16) and the fabrics he uses are a symbol of this multi-cultural identity. By dressing one of art history’s most famous French coquettes in African print, Shonibare reminds us that identity is a construction. The magpie-like creation of identity from various historical and cultural signifiers is a key theme in Shonibare’s work. Perhaps his best-known work, Diary of a Victorian Dandy, 1998, commissioned by InIVA and reproduced on posters on the London Underground that year, is a series of photographs of the artist cavorting his way through a hedonistic day in Victorian London. The photographs portray the artist as a glamorous outsider figure with the refined sensibilities and sartorial elegance of the Wildean dandy. In a subversion of the Victorian notion of the black savage, the images glamourise black identity in a fin-de-siècle context. Shonibare suggests that the attitude of the dandy is available to be adopted and discarded like a well-made suit. Similarly, The Swing (after Fragonard) suggests that the idea of a pure or authentic identity based on traditional notions of nationality, race or class is as anachronistic as a corset and bustle.

Further reading:
Christiana Perrella, Olu Oguibe, Benedetta Bini, Elena di Majo and Valentina Bruschi, Yinka Shonibare: Be-muse, exhibition catalogue, Museo Hendrik Christian Andersen, Rome 2002, reproduced p.17 in colour.
Suzanne Landau and Jean Fisher, Yinka Shonibare: Double Dress, exhibition catalogue, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem 2002, reproduced pp.64-5 in colour.

Rachel Taylor
September 2003

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