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Coincidence? Yinka Shonibare and 18th Century women intellectuals

June 6, 2010

What I want to suggest is that there is no such thing as a natural signifier, that the signifier is always constructed… Yinka Shonibare, Bomb Magazine, Fall 2005

I recently saw a Yinka Shonibare piece, The Age of Enlightenment – Gabrielle Emilie Le Tonnelier de Bretruil (2008), at 21C Museum in Louisville. Like his other well-known works, it’s a life-size fiberglass mannequin, outfitted in elaborate 17th-Century costume, but rather than brocade and velvet, the costume is made of the cacophonous colors of Dutch wax printed cotton. The technique of wax batik cloth dying originates in Indonesia; Dutch colonizers brought it to Europe, where it was scaled up to industrial production in order to be exported to the African colonies. Today wax prints, many still manufactured in Europe, are synonymous with African dress. A colonial invention, Dutch wax fabric is nevertheless a sign of “authentic” African identity, and Shonibare’s use of it revisits colonial history and points out that the identity and authenticity are not fixed but “fabricated” (heh). Shonibare has discussed these figures in terms of carnival and masquerade traditions, in which the poor can pretend to be rich and the rich poor for a day or two.

Here are some terrible photos I took of the artwork with my phone (it’s placed in front of two Shonibare photographs that reconstruct/revise Goya’s etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters):

The Age of Enlightenment The Age of Enlightenment

So, here is the picture on which the figure is based, by Maurice Quentin de la Tour:

You can see the bows and sleeves and weird necklace-ruff thing are modeled closely after the painting (incidentally, this lady is wearing a similar neck-thing in nearly every image made of her!). The things set out on her desk (presumably her scientific treatises) are also reproduced faithfully, along with the dividers in her hand. (The arm which in the painting is under her chin rests on the table, and is made of wood, on the mannequin.)
Émilie du Chatelet by de la TourI normally wouldn’t have bothered to look up the antecedent artwork for Shonibare’s piece; it seemed like a fairly standard, if sciencey, aristocrat portrait, and the sciencey, mappy aspects were perfect accessories to the overall narrative of colonialism, mapping, possession, and trade that the artist’s work embodies and scrambles. And in fact, I did not look it up: it came to me! In a book that I happened to be reading on the plane ride back from Kentucky, that very same day! (Women, Art, and Society by Whitney Chadwick, 4th edition)

What I began to read about made me see Shonibare’s work generally, and this figure particularly, a bit differently — thinking about this particular woman (a controversial and brillant thinker), sewing and dressmaking as women’s work and socially acceptable amateur “accomplishments,” and relationships between Enlightenment-era conceptions of class, gender, and family and the colonial project as a whole…

I actually stumbled upon a different portrait of this lady (below), which interestingly was painted by a lady artist, Marianne Loir. The Marquise Du Châtelet (1706-1749), the prodigy and salonière depicted, was a physicist, mathematician, and public intellectual who participated actively in debates on Newton, Descartes, and Liebniz, and was also the lover and intellectual partner of Voltaire. Despite her reknown while she lived, she and her contributions were relegated to the shadows of Enlightenment thought and history after her death. She was extraordinarily privileged, both in terms of the wealth she was born into, and in having an eccentric father who encouraged her in education. (She was also a serious card shark and sometimes cross-dressed in order to be admitted to men-only clubs…!) Here is a choice quote about education for women, in which de Châtelet foreshadows Linda Nochlin’s famous question of 1971:

Why is it that for so many centuries not a single good tragedy, fine poem, valued story, beautiful painting, or good book on physics has been produced by the hand of a woman? Why do these creatures – whose understanding appears to be similar in every way to that of men – seem to be held back by an insurmountable force? Let someone give me a reason for it, if they can. I leave it to the naturalists to find a physical reason for it, but until they have found one, women have a right to speak out for their education.

Here is the portrait in my book, by Marie (Marianne) Loir (painted 1745-49), evidence of a tradition in which women artists often depicted women. Excluded from the Academy in Paris, Loir was a member of the Academy of Marseilles. Though the composition of this portrait is straightforward, the iconography and mannerisms of the painting reflect the style of the official aristocratic art of the period. During the Enlightenment, this style, tied to the excessive decadence of the mistrusted aristocracy, was reformulated as a feminine counterpart to a new masculine ideal of virtue, and likewise spheres of female activity were contested in light of the “natural” separation and opposition of masculine and feminine as posited by Rousseau, who was virulently opposed to salonières like du Chaletet. In an age of changing class structure, Rousseau couched his unease with women’s usurping of the “natural” authority and citizenship of men in terms of the female body and the home, remarking that when the mistress of the house goes wandering about in public, “her home is like a lifeless body which is soon corrupted.” As this metaphor illustrates, the body, and especially the female body, is a primary site of class conflict played out in its dress, customs, and manners. One’s appearance can convey and reinforce a moral code.

Among Rousseau’s other thoughts on what’s “natural” and not, his particular projection of simplicity and naievete to onto colonized peoples (though he was not the originator of the trope of the “noble savage”) is important. Rousseau rejected the use of civilization or any other ideal as rationale for colonization, and pointed out that colonists failed to convert the colonized to their way of life anyway. However, while he suggested that “savage” people were better off as they were than “civilized,” he still believed them to be more or less sub-human, lacking reason and awareness of their agency. It’s like anti-Eurocentric Eurocentrism.

These proscriptions on gender and projections on culture are interrelated and fit into much vaster and long-running oppositions of feminine/masculine, nature/culture, and emotion/reason-intellect. Increasingly during the Enlightenment and afterwards, colonized peoples were essentialized, feminized, and used as a foil to the progress and civilization of Europe.

Of Shonibare’s other figures that represent specific Enlightenment figures, like Adam Smith, Time critic Richard Lacayo has said,

“When I see them dressed in those outfits it says to me that reason, which was the faith those men lived by, wasn’t enough by itself to understand the complexities of the world that Western civilization, which liked to think of reason as its foundation, was creating. It had a dark side that reason didn’t want to know about.”

(Above: Three Graces, 2001)
The headless Enlightenment figures with their frilly symbolic attributes are parodies, not just of individuals but of a whole class and long history. In reading about du Chatelet (and the contested space women occupied in that period) I realized forcefully how constructed and even frail the ideals of the era were, not inevitable, not “natural,” not truth, but thought up by somebody. (The elaborate construction and spectacular, fastidious appearance of Shonibare’s garments support this I think.) Then, as now, people were attempting not only to map, understand, and control the whole world –- they were also trying to get a grip on their families, their households, and themselves.

I think it’s no coincidence either that Shonibare’s work about colonialism and its lecagies is visually expressed through the domestic/feminine labors of clothing and appearance. Even things that are supposed to be emblematic of certain ideals — authenticity, femininity, reason, civilization — are heterogeneous and muddled, and can never quite fulfill the fantasies of those Utopian models.

Further reading:
du Chatelet in Cabinet
Yinka Shonibare in Bomb Magazine

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 20, 2010 12:21 pm

    I agree, its definately no coincidence. A well thought out piece and most informative

  2. david fife permalink
    August 14, 2010 1:26 am

    Nice entry though as a Male I reckon my voice is irrelevant on feminist issues because I have never walked in their shoes. anyways the level of discourse is at a high level, therefore making this one of the better art blogs around.

    • bumbleleaf permalink*
      September 12, 2010 9:53 pm

      David, I don’t think that feminist issues are exclusively lady business. If you can think about structures of power embedded in law, in culture, in religion, in everything, and you can think about how to criticize and change them, then right there you’re doing feminism.

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