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YBA's in Focus: Cheeky Little Astronomer, 2013

Yinka Shonibare, RA Cheeky Little Astronomer, 2013

Shonibare has become well known for his exploration of colonialism and post-colonialism within the contemporary context of globalisation. Working in painting, sculpture, photography, film and installation, Shonibare’s work examines race, class and the construction of cultural identity between Africa and Europe and their respective economic and political histories.

Quoting from the RA’s website about the work:

“Cheeky Little Astronomer was commissioned for an exhibition at the Astronomer Royal's apartments in Flamsteed House, part of the Royal Observatory Greenwich. The house was built in 1675 for the Astronomer Royal and his family, a post established by King Charles II to instruct the monarch on astronomy. The figure was placed facing the window as if observing the atmosphere with his telescope. The equipment points to the important science that took place in the house and the child-like figure to the family activity lived alongside the astronomical instruments. Shonibare describes the sculpture as aspirational: “The work also evokes magic. Looking into the stars, there’s something aspirational, forward-looking and magical about the piece”.

Shonibare has made a number of works with figures with globes for heads. The figures at times reflect the standing poses of classical sculpture and elsewhere are captured in action: precariously balancing books, suspended on stilts, or toppling off a chair. Shonibare explains that he creates this juxtaposition because classical sculpture is iconic in Western high culture whereas the globe is universal and therefore more inclusive. The globe symbolises Shonibare's concerns with geographical and cultural identity and colonialism and post-colonialism. The Victorian style of the globe refers to a colonial period.

The clothes the figure wears are made from batik fabric, with brightly coloured patterns. Many of the patterns have symbolic meaning so in some cultures the fabric could be 'read'.

Shonibare uses the fabric as he is interested in how something that symbolises one culture can have a hidden, multicultural history.

Jo McLaughlin

April 2021

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