The hibiscus and the rose.
The rose represents Yinka Shonibare’s birthplace and current home in London. The rose is England’s national flower, long used to symbolize the nation.
The hibiscus represents Nigeria, the country of her parents’ origin and the place of her childhood – Lagos, to be precise. Growing up, he ate the nectar of the hibiscus flower, ubiquitous across the country.
Shoinbare (b. 1962) spoke Yoruba at home and English at the private school he attended. A “postcolonial hybrid” in his own words, the artist’s identity was shaped by his bicultural heritage growing between the center and the fringes of the British Empire.
What better place to examine this duality – hibiscus and rose – than a botanical garden? A botanical garden with a prestigious sculpture park to boot – duality – the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, MI.
After being closed for over a year for renovations, the renovated Sculpture Galleries at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park are reopening with the exhibition “Yinka Shonibare CBE: Planets in My Head,” on view until October 23, 2022. This exhibition features works by Yinka Shonibare CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) from the past three decades. Many works have never been shown in the United States, including sculptures, paintings, photographs, collages, embroidery, and film.
Appropriately, the exhibit includes a recent print of two flowers significant to Shonibare: Hibiscus and the Rose.
Shonibare has become one of the leading artistic voices of the global art world, best known for his playful combination of colorful patterns of Dutch wax fabrics popular in West Africa with the fashion of upper-class Victorian culture. . This imagery is due to Shonibare’s longstanding interest in the era of Victorianism.
During the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), the British Empire aggressively extended its colonial control around the world, particularly on the African continent. Shonibare deals with the evils of victorism through parody and subversion. He adopted as a metaphor the wax-dyed batik cloth which the Dutch could not successfully market in Indonesia and then began to export to Africa. Batik represents the process of cultural transfer and displacement that has helped craft an authentic African style.
Duality. Hybridity. Post-colonial hybrid.
As he embraces cross-cultural mixing and exchange in his work, he never hesitates to allude to the postcolonial scars of cultural imperialism and exploitation.
A citizen of the world, Shonibare has ensured that his works on display in Grand Rapids also connect locally.
“Shonibare was inspired to create the sculpture food man specifically for this exhibit,” David Hooker, president and CEO of Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, who visited Shonibare at his London studio to invite exhibits in Michigan, told Forbes.com. “food man is based on the artist’s research into the local agricultural history of western Michigan, particularly the Fruit Ridge region, not far from Meijer Gardens, which has traditionally been home to orchards.
Shonibare says:food man questions the sustainability of the industrialized food production, distribution system and waste in a world with a population of 7.8 billion. …Sustainability is expressed through this gravity-defying sculpture in which Food Man struggles to maintain the balance of supply.
From West Michigan to Nigeria, Meijer Gardens’ 158-acre main campus offers visitors their own globe-trotting experience.
“After visiting the Sculpture Galleries, guests can venture along the BISSELL Corridor to one of the conservatories to see and smell plant species from climates around the world. In the Earl & Donnalee Holton Victorian Garden Room, get a taste of 19th-century British fashion for filling the home interior with plants,” suggests Hooker. “Until April, customers can experience the Lena Meijer Tropical Conservatory filled with thousands of butterflies, another species Victorians loved to collect and display. The butterflies that populate the Conservatory are shipped as pupae from South America, Asia and Africa. Meanwhile, Meijer Gardens is literally a global meeting place for butterflies from all over the world.
Think big on a small scale
The Meijer Gardens sculpture park established itself as one of the first such institutions in the world. Its collection includes hundreds of sculptures by internationally renowned artists such as El Anatsui, Louise Bourgeois, Alexander Calder, Jaume Plensa, Richard Serra, Shonibare and Ai Weiwei. It happened in a remarkably short period of time.
In the early 1990s, Betsy Borre, a volunteer with the West Michigan Horticultural Society, decided to start a botanical garden in Grand Rapids. She approached Fred Meijer, who had turned her father’s small grocery store into a huge regional chain, asking for a main giveaway.
“Fred was interested and had a conversation with his wife, Lena,” Hooker explains. “She talked about her love of gardens and flowers. He spoke of his love of sculptures and the fact that he had acquired some, without a place to display them.
“Fred came back to Betsy with a proposition: if she and her group accepted and installed his sculptures — and made the institution a horticulture and sculpture mission — he and Lena would donate,” Hooker said.
The Meijers made a significant donation of money and land to start the organization and the rest is history. A global arts and botanical destination created in less than 30 years through bold vision, community-driven philanthropy and the courage to ask. All in a town of only about 200,000 people, isolated in western Michigan, on the way to nowhere.
A new 69,000 square foot visitor center is slated to open in July. The building is part of a $115 million expansion project that addresses significant growth in attendance and programming since the organization opened in 1995.
“The fundraising campaign for the construction of the visitor center, ‘Welcoming the World: Honoring a Legacy of Love’, expresses our desire for everyone to visit the Meijer Gardens. As the project progressed, we determined that Shonibare would be the best artist for the inaugural exhibition in the new galleries,” Hooker said.
Elsewhere in Grand Rapids
Meijer Gardens isn’t the only cultural institution in Grand Rapids punching above its weight. Until April 30, the Grand Rapids Art Museum brings together two of the most famous photographers working today, Carrie Mae Weems and Dawoud Bey. Both born in 1953, the two artists met at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1996 and have been intellectual colleagues and companions ever since.
After leaving Grand Rapids, the exhibit will travel to the Tampa Museum of Art, the Seattle Museum of Art, and the Getty Center in Los Angeles.