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  • 3 Nov 2015

Yinka Shonibare interview: The migrant crisis makes me want to make more beautiful things

Turner Prize nominee Yinka Shonibare, whose ‘Nelson’s Ship In A Bottle’ sculpture graced Trafalgar’s Square’s Fourth Plinth for two years, is well known for exploring the interrelationship between Europe and Africa in his art but his stance on the migrant crisis might surprise you.

The Royal Academician and Goldsmiths graduate of the YBA generation, who was born in Britain but spent most his childhood in Nigeria, says he finds it difficult observing what’s happening in Europe as thousands of refugees and economic migrants stream from Syria and elsewhere into mainstream Europe.

Explaining that his work as an artist “has a lot to do with my mood and what is going on in the world” he reveals: “Sometimes there are devastating things that make you recoil from them. The migrant crisis is making me want to make more beautiful things. To reflect on humanity’s failure to look after these people.”

Speaking from his Hackney-based studio, a glorious open-plan space overlooking the canal which is bursting with the artist’s trademark African fabrics, stuffed animals, dummys covered with the clothing he makes, a replica of Nelson’s Ship In A Bottle’ sitting ceremoniously among other intriguing detritus, Shonibare is forthright about his role as a prominent artist.

“As an artist you must reflect an unbiased view. You can still do challenging work without being sectarian,” he says. “I never take sides. Human beings are so fickle and if you take sides too early you can find yourself in a difficult position. Britain could have ended up on the side of ISIS. That nearly happened [laughs].”

“Of course in my personal life I recognise injustice,” he continues. “But is so difficult take sides because revolutionaries and rebels often become despots.”

While he might not want to involve himself in politics Shonibare is happy to offer a more practical helping hand to nascent artists. Attached to the wall outside his Haggerston studio is a box into which artists can post proposals for projects. He chooses the best ones and gives them access to a larger downstairs studio space for a limited time.

Tomorrow, as an extension of this, Shonibare is taking over the Novium Museum in Chichester for 24 hours and filling it full of emerging artists all doing different things inspired by the institutions’ permanent collection.

It will be a totally one-off project, part of the Museums at Night festival which brings after-hours events to galleries and museums around the country, and even Shonibare doesn’t seem completely sure what his installation will involve.

“It’s called an Inventive Factory and I’ve invited artists to do different things at different times. There will be music, making, performances…,” he says. Will you be there for the full 24 hours, I ask? “I like to go to bed early,” he says, eyes twinkling.

Shonibare is keen to help other artists who are starting out partly because he was helped by the charity Space which enabled him to get an affordable studio in his early career.

He spent the first few years after university working part-time in events and fundraising for another charity, Shape, which supports people with disabilities working in the arts but gave that up when he won the Paul Hamlyn award. “In 1998 £30,000 was a lot of money,” he says.

He’s bemused by being lumped in with the YBA generation in the press because he says he wasn’t really part of it. “I didn’t really buy into that. But we all know each other because scene was very small. We had friends in common and I know people like Tracey [Emin] more. But not really Damien [Hirst].”

But he was part of the landmark Sensations exhibition having had his work snapped up almost immediately by Charles Saatchi when the Stephen Friedman gallery started representing him. A Turner Prize nomination in 2004 put him on the international map and Shonibare now works with five galleries around the world and is currently preparing for an exhibition in Singapore in January.

But despite the YBA association Shonibare doesn’t appear to hold with the conceptualising it represents. “A good artist doesn’t need to explain their work. You are not in the room when people are engaging with your work so you shouldn’t have to explain it,” he says.

“I would consider it a failure if I had had to stand out in the rain explaining Ship In A Bottle. It would be tragic.”

The beautiful ship sculpture is almost ethereally in its detail up close. I ask him how he possibly made it, to which he replies, eyes dancing with humour: “It is a magical thing and if you understand how it works it stops being magical. You wouldn’t ask a magician about his tricks, would you?”

Read the article in The Independent.