Museum  April 15, 2019  Claire Voon

How Contemporary Art is Enriching a Gilded Age Mansion

© Yinka Shonibare CBE. Image courtesy of James Cohan, New York.

Yinka Shonibare CBE (British/Nigerian, b. 1962), Party Time: Re-imagine America (detail), 2008/9. Fiberglass mannequins, Dutch wax printed cotton textile, leather boots, table, eight chairs, and other mixed-media. Collection of the Newark Museum, Purchase 2010 Helen McMahon Brady Cutting Fund. 2010.5.1-66.

When finished in 1883, a mansion owned by the prominent Samuel and Mathilda Nickerson was known as the most extravagant home in Chicago. Costing about $450,000, it was nicknamed “the Marble Palace”; local magazine Inland Architect marveled at how the residence “reached a standard of excellence never before attained” in the city. To this day, it’s easy to see why: a marble-clad hall welcomes visitors to what is now the Richard H. Driehaus Museum, inlaid wood floors lead from room to room, and original furnishings speak to a Gilded Age splendor.

Since March 2, the building has been imbued with new, electric energy courtesy of British Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare CBE, whose ongoing solo show marks the first time contemporary art has filled its spaces. It’s also the first in a new series of exhibitions at the Driehaus collectively titled A Tale of Today, a name that nods to Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s eponymous novel that critiques the corrupted politics of the Gilded Age. In a similar gesture, Shonibare’s installations and photographs serve as fantastical intrusions into these aristocratic interiors, complicating their glossy histories.

All seems as usual in the building until you reach the artist’s stand out work, Party Time (2009), which transform the dining room. The scene is overwhelming: eight revelers are frozen over a banquet of oysters, quail eggs, and wine. Cutlery and candlesticks are askew; the hostess props her shoes on the table; and behind her, a butler serves a platter of peacock, feathers and all. Such privilege and indulgent activities, Shinobare suggests, exist because of glaring class disparities—a message that resonates regardless of time.

© Yinka Shonibare CBE. Image courtesy of James Cohan, New York.

Yinka Shonibare CBE (British/Nigerian, b. 1962), Party Time: Re-imagine America (detail), 2008/9. Fiberglass mannequins, Dutch wax printed cotton textile, leather boots, table, eight chairs, and other mixed-media. Collection of the Newark Museum, Purchase 2010 Helen McMahon Brady Cutting Fund. 2010.5.1-66.

Each anonymous figure is not only headless—alluding to guillotined aristocrats of the French Revolution—but wears Victorian-style clothing in a signature textile in Shinobare’s work: batik fabric that has a convoluted history of reappropriation rooted in Dutch colonization. During the 19th-century, these patterned cloths known as Dutch wax fabrics were initially manufactured in the Netherlands and brought to Indonesia before they were sold in colonial African markets. Over time, they became global commodities and markers of African identity.

Shinobare, notably, works with European-made textiles from a London market; these “draw attention to the fabrics’ purported authenticity,” as historian Kirstin Purtich writes in the exhibition catalog. They are key to Shinobare’s practice, not only serving to remind us to read history beyond the superficial but also nodding to his own hybrid identity.

Beneath a magnificent glass dome in another room, a seven-foot-tall figure titled Big Boy (2002) shows off the textiles in a pair of trousers with an elaborate ruffled train. Appearing like a confident gentleman, the mannequin’s puffed-out chest has unexpected details: slight hints of breasts. “It deals with the Victorian dandy,” Richard Townsend, the Driehaus’ executive director, explains. “But it also speaks to contemporary concerns of gender roles and gender fluidity.”

Yinka Shonibare CBE (British/Nigerian, b. 1962), Big Boy, 2002
Michael Tropea, 2019

Yinka Shonibare CBE (British/Nigerian, b. 1962), Big Boy, 2002. Wax-printed cotton fabric, fiberglass. The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Susan and Lewis Manilow, 2004.759.

Yinka Shonibare CBE (British/Nigerian, b. 1962), Big Boy, 2002
Michael Tropea, 2019

Yinka Shonibare CBE (British/Nigerian, b. 1962), Big Boy, 2002. Wax-printed cotton fabric, fiberglass. The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Susan and Lewis Manilow, 2004.759.

Yinka Shonibare CBE (British/Nigerian, b. 1962), Child on Unicycle, 2005
Michael Tropea, 2019

Yinka Shonibare CBE (British/Nigerian, b. 1962), Child on Unicycle, 2005. Metal, fabric, resin and Leather. American Masters Collection I, Kansas City, Missouri.

Yinka Shonibare CBE (British/Nigerian, b. 1962), Party Time: Re-imagine America (detail), 2009
Michael Tropea, 2019

Yinka Shonibare CBE (British/Nigerian, b. 1962), Party Time: Re-imagine America (detail), 2009. Fiberglass mannequins, Dutch wax printed cotton textile, leather boots, table, eight chairs, and other mixed-media. Collection of the Newark Museum, Purchase 2010 Helen McMahon Brady Cutting Fund. 2010.5.1-66.

Yinka Shonibare CBE (British/Nigerian, b. 1962), Party Time: Re-imagine America (detail), 2009
Michael Tropea, 2019

Yinka Shonibare CBE (British/Nigerian, b. 1962), Party Time: Re-imagine America (detail), 2009. Fiberglass mannequins, Dutch wax printed cotton textile, leather boots, table, eight chairs, and other mixed-media. Collection of the Newark Museum, Purchase 2010 Helen McMahon Brady Cutting Fund. 2010.5.1-66.

Big Boy is an imposing representation of marginalized individuals who would not have been seen in the original Nickerson estate, which hosted many functions. In the upstairs quarters, Shonibare intervenes with history using his own identity as a black, disabled man. The photo series Diary of a Victorian Dandy (1998) riffs on William Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress, an 18th-century narrative of privilege and perversion told through eight paintings. Shonibare’s images follow the artist as he goes through an increasingly debauched day as a member of the upper class. But while he’s shown with many people, his skin color and distant demeanor immediately cast him as the odd one out in every tableau. “He’s the outsider, contrasting with his surroundings in every sense,” says Townsend. Another photo suite, Dorian Gray (2001), restages Oscar Wilde’s novel; in it, Shonibare plays the title character, inserting himself once more in a fictional narrative to subvert Victorian values.

© Yinka Shonibare CBE. Image courtesy of James Cohan, New York.

Yinka Shonibare CBE (British/Nigerian, b. 1962), Dorian Gray (detail), 2001. 11 black-and-white photographs, 1 chromogenic photograph. The Collection Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman NY, Courtesy FLAG Art Foundation.

Another work at first seems to belong in the house. Upstairs, Downstairs (1997) consists of colorful porcelain plates in a cabinet that could be examples of the Nickerson’s dishware; a closer look reveals the peculiar text etched into them, like “Holland John, Ratcatcher” and “Reynolds T., Pigman.” These are names of servants who served the Liverpool country estate Croxteth Hall, where the installation was originally displayed. For Townsend, Shonibare’s tribute to invisible individuals is “the perfect piece that encapsulates the show’s relevance to the Driehaus, being about the lives of the others—those many faceless individuals who worked in this house and served the families.”

Since 2013, the Driehaus has hosted a summer tour focused on the Nickersons’ live-in servants to discuss the social inequalities of the time. With this new series of contemporary art exhibitions, the museum strives to more deeply address the history of the mansion, where entry was once offered only to the cloistered community of the Nickerson’s white, upper-class circle. “We want to be more deeply integrated in the life of this city,” Townsend says. “This program allows us to bring in younger, more diverse audiences. We want to open up to an audience who might otherwise not be interested in this building and collection.” Inviting us to consider issues of power, race, and class, Shonibare’s exhibition is a laudable start.

About the Author

Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a Chicago-based art writer. Her work has appeared in publications such as ARTnews, Artsy, Chicago Magazine, Atlas Obscura, and Hyperallergic, where she was previously a staff writer.

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