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Yinka Shonibare CBE's Ritual Ecstasy of the Modern at Cristea Roberts Gallery

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  • Friday dispatch
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Relief print with woodblock and batik fabric collage

Courtesy artist and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London © Yinka Shonibare CBE

Cristea Roberts Gallery, 43 Pall Mall, St. James's, London
22 September – 4 November 2023


Ritual Ecstasy of the Modern, Yinka Shonibare’s first solo-exhibition at Cristea Roberts, showcases the artist’s evolving printmaking practice over the past seven years. New woodblock prints and hand-painted sculptures of African ritual artefacts are displayed alongside earlier works, incorporating motifs from the British Empire, American symbolism, African masks, birds, as well as references to the genre of European portrait painting. Shonibare’s artistic oeuvre of sculpture, painting, photography, film and print reflects his British-Nigerian heritage, and offers a critical commentary on the complex, interwoven economic and political histories of Africa and Europe.

Dutch wax batik patterns are a leitmotif of Shonibare’s visual vocabulary, exploring themes of (post) colonialism, race, class, and cultural identity. They also feature prominently within his woodcut prints. Originally an Indonesian textile tradition, batik fabric was mass-produced by the Dutch in the 1800s, and then sold to the nation’s other colonies in West and Central Africa, where Ankara fabric ironically became a symbol of independence and national identity.

Shonibare’s first substantial print project Cowboy Angels is presented in the alcove above the gallery’s stairs. The five relief prints, with woodblock and batik collage, depict a fusion of cowboys and angels, whose faces are concealed by African masks. During the time of their creation in 2017, the series’ American symbolism presented a critical view of US politics and the election of Donald Trump.

Shonibare’s second print project, Unstructured Icons (2018), underscores the wealth and excess of imperial Europe - reimagined by Shonibare through the lens of historical portrait paintings. Acquired by CAS in 2022 for Victoria Art Gallery in Liverpool, Unstructured Icons is an editioned set of six woodblock prints with Ankara fabric collages. Portraying iconic and powerful figures, such as Henry VIII wearing an African mask, the colourful prints poke fun at the aristocracy, while highlighting its self indulgence, as this period in history coincided with the height of African enslavement.

Placed at the entrance of the gallery is Shonibare’s largest print to date, Mayflower, All Flowers. Strongly informed by British history, it depicts the famous ship ‘Mayflower’, that brought English migrants to North America in the 17th century. The artist’s inclusive version of ‘Mayflower’ was created in direct response to the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020.

The new works in the exhibition serve to illuminate the intricate relationships between African culture and Western Modernism. Shonibare illustrates the impact of contact with African artefacts on the origins of 20th Century Art, and the influence it had on artists such as Picasso, as well as on European avant-garde movements such as Dadaism and Surrealism.

Shonibare comments: “We are going through a kind of African renaissance moment now, too, so I wanted to understand the origins of how Black culture became fashionable in western modernism. I am kind of revisiting how the power of African aesthetics managed to inspire a whole movement in the west.”

Modern Magic (2021), for example, features five prints that incorporate African artefacts from the collection of Pablo Picasso, whereas Modern Spiritual (2023), depicts ritual masks and relics discovered in the collections of prominent modernist artists, including André Derain and Tristan Tzara. Across both groups of work, Shonibare reappropriates the harlequin motif, a geometric pattern frequently used by Picasso, to symbolise the trickster. By reinterpreting this symbolism, Shonibare questions modes of appropriation and authenticity, while also paying homage to the legacy of African art.

Continuing to question established Art Historical dichotomies - such as ‘Primitive’ versus ‘Modern’ art - is a series of five resin and carbon fibre sculptures titled African Roots of Modernism (2023). They have been hand-painted with Dutch wax batik patterns, some inspired by traditional West African Bété masks. By once again employing batik motifs, the artist addresses the development of African aesthetics before, during, and after colonial rule. Moreover, displaying the masks individually on a white plinth creates an aura of significance to each of them as standalone art pieces.

At first glance, Shonibare’s woodcut prints appear light and colourful. Looking closer, we realise that they carry a strong, political message. However, it is obvious that aesthetic concerns are also central for Shonibare, who trained initially as a painter. As viewers, we are able to gain insight into Shonibare’s complex and elaborate printing processes; this exhibition also features one of the artist’s woodblocks that was created in collaboration with Thumbprint Studios, Camberwell.

Just as Shonibare’s earlier, poignant sculpture-installations point to the depraved (post) colonial power relations, as well as Europe’s desire for ‘the exotic’, his print works compel viewers to pause and contemplate the enduring legacy of colonialism. Powerfully illustrating the radical influence of African artefacts on the work of western modernists, Ritual Ecstasy of the Modern is a must see!


Christine Takengny
The Roden Senior Curator, Museum Acquisitions


Cristea Roberts Gallery
43 Pall Mall, St. James's, London SW1Y 5JG
Opening Times: Tuesday - Friday: 11am - 5.30pm, Saturday: 11am - 2pm, Closed Monday, Sunday and public holidays
Exhibition open until 4 November 2023