A Colorful Tribute to Multiculturalism Unfurls in NYC

John Phillips/Getty Images for 14-18 NOW (L); Jason Wyche / Courtesy of Public Art Fund, NY (R)

Amid a turbulent climate, artist Yinka Shonibare offers a warm welcome at the entrance to Central Park.

Despite New York’s formidable winter weather (bomb cyclones one week, nor’easters the next), a giant fiberglass sail is welcoming pedestrians into the city’s most famous communal green space. Inaugurated this week, British Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare’s 23-foot-tall Wind Sculpture (SG) 1 withstands the elements to invite city dwellers and short-term visitors, Americans and foreigners, into Central Park. The sculpture’s narrow cylindrical base rises into expansive undulations, resembling the folds of a sail blowing in the wind. Its colorful patterns—yellow blotches on an orange background, concentric brown and tan circles, streaks of teal—contrast gray skies, the concrete Doris Freedman Plaza where it stands, and the surrounding barren trees.

Produced by The Public Art Fund, the sculpture initiates the second generation of Shonibare’s wind sculptures. Works from the first generation, which date back to 2013, already adorn major cities. Situated at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Washington’s Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, and London sculpture parks and streets, they feature their own unique mix of colors, patterns, and shapes. Wind Sculpture (SG) 1 is the most complicated construction so far, twisting and folding in on itself in a way that conjures a dancer, or at least a billowing skirt.

Photo: Jason Wyche / Courtesy of Public Art Fund, NY

To determine the shape of Wind Sculpture (SG) 1, Shonibare used a hair dryer to blow a piece of fabric and photographed the resulting ripples. From the images, he created sketches to determine the best shape for a public context. He says that the turquoise in Wind Sculpture (SG) 1 reminds him of childhood picnics by the seaside. The overall pattern evokes Dutch wax batik print, a hallmark of Shonibare’s practice (he’s previously used it to cover books, decorate mannequins, and dress models for his photography). This fabric is typical of West African clothing, though it’s traditionally made in the Netherlands; it arrived on the continent via Dutch colonization. Now, Shonibare can purchase it, along with other international goods, at London’s Brixton Market. The material is thus freighted with connotations of consumption and cross-continental interchange, which the artist brings to attention through his work.

The fabrics’ vibrant patterns, joyous on first glance, also hint at a broader history of inequity and violence. If nautical trade routes brought new products to West Africa, they also spurred the slave trade and centuries of oppression. “A lot of conflict in the world is based on ignorance and not actually understanding people who are different from us,” says Shonibare. “I think that art is certainly one way of having that cultural exchange.”

Born in 1962, Shonibare moved from London to Lagos, Nigeria when he was three years old after his father finished a law degree in the UK. The family traveled back and forth, allowing the artist to understand, early on, what it was like to shuffle between two cultures. It’s no surprise, then, that migration and the multiplicity of identity became two of his major themes. “New York is very multicultural, and also it’s a city of immigrants as well,” Shonibare says about the placement of Wind Sculpture (SG) 1. “The work does explore some of those issues around migration. And so I feel that that is the right context.”

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Shonibare’s wind sculptures evolved out of a 2010 project, Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle. On view from 2010-2012 in London’s Trafalgar Square, the artist replicated the HMS Victory, one of Britain’s most famous vessels, and encased the work in a corked glass bottle. In the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar, Lord Horatio Nelson and his crew used the ship, and the rest of the Royal Navy, to ward off Napoleon’s advances and save the country from French invasion. Shonibare decorated his sails with turquoise and orange patterns (again reminiscent of Dutch batik fabric), instead of invoking the traditional off-white. The wind sculptures pare down this work, removing the sails from their original context to create more lyrical abstractions.

Public Art Fund Director Nicholas Baume showed a first generation wind sculpture at the Bass Museum during Art Basel Miami Beach in 2014. By way of Shonibare’s gallery, James Cohan, Baume learned that the artist was thinking about a second generation. While discussions about the work began a few years ago, recent debates about immigration and public monuments have given crucial new context to Wind Sculpture (SG) 1. The work, according to Baume, both provides the artist with a voice and determines its own audience. “Some of the guys here who work selling tours of Central Park are West African,” he says. “We’re installing this piece, they were looking like ‘oh my god we love this, we know what this is.’”

Yinka Shonibare MBE: Wind Sculpture (SG) I will be on view March 7 – October 14 in Doris C. Freedman Plaza, Central Park. publicartfund.org