Nobumasa Kiyonaga & Bernadette Van Haute & Ernst Wagner

Yinka Shonibare CBE: "Mrs Pinckney and the Emancipated Birds of South Carolina", 2017, Fibreglass mannequin, Dutch wax printed cotton textile, bird cage, birds, leather and globe, 246 x 115 x 134 cm. Yale Center for British Art Collection, New Haven. Courtesy the artist and James Cohan Gallery, New York. Photographer: Stephen White & Co.

Reading an image – in Shimonoseki (Japan), Pretoria (South Africa) and Munich (Germany)

Ways of accessing images differ in the various regions around the globe. Interested in diversity, i.e. differences, the three authors tried out the multi-perspective methodology on Yinka Shonibare's art work. In this respect, this text is also to be understood in the context of the discussion on the decolonisation of hegemonic, Western knowledge regimes. In order to bring out the multiperspectivity, our different ways of seeing, the following short texts were created in parallel, i.e. without mutual influence. This essay reports in the first part on the discussions about the selection of the object, in the second part the approaches to this 'picture' are tested and finally discussed together in the third part.



The common agreement on the 'image' we wanted to analyse was not easy. It should be (due to our common professional background) a work of art with global impact on a politically relevant topic (e.g. sustainability, decolonisation, etc.). As a possible work, we initially proposed Ice Watch by the internationally renowned artist Olafur Eliasson, which he installed in London in 2018 on the occasion of an international climate conference.  But it quickly became clear that students in South Africa could not easily identify with this work. Counter-proposals were met with reciprocal concerns. Our image should therefore work with visual languages (e.g. materials, themes) that would allow intuitive access in all three world areas. This ruled them out.


As images of global reach, we then discussed media images with two very different orientations, on the one hand mangas as a global youth culture emanating from Japan, and on the other hand the images of 9/11 or photos of Ai Weiwei's action on the beach of Lesbos in 2016. The discussion revealed that these images were, however, too unambiguous (perhaps also "too political"), and thus the comparative approach would be endangered, as differences would no longer come to light. Finally, the specific, culturally shaped access methods should lead to different results.


Since a topic of global relevance was to be addressed (ecology after all?), the idea was to look for an example that did not come from one of the world regions from which we authors come. This is how the works of Tomás Saraceno, who comes from Latin America, came into play. His works address ecological systems in a poetic way, so they were also correspondingly open. But this one is - perhaps precisely because of its poetry - not political enough, an aspect that is especially important in South Africa. We were then able to agree immediately on the sudden idea of Yinka Shonibare in the rising despair, especially since his works are exhibited not only in Europe and Africa but also in Japan.

  • Bernadette Van Haute
    Bernadette Van Haute

    Mrs Pinckney and the Emancipated Birds of South Carolina (2017) is a sculpture in the round composed of a headless, female, ‘white’ mannequin swathed in historical dress and balancing on a globe. In place of her head is an empty birdcage from which three birds have escaped. The work was created by the internationally renowned artist Yinka Shonibare (born 1962) who is a black man of Nigerian descent living in the United Kingdom. He can thus be identified as a member of the African diaspora. In his artworks he usually engages with concepts that are related to the politics of colonialism and the slave trade and explores cultural identity in the context of globalisation. [1] While his creations are deeply critical of western imperialism, he always makes sure to render them visually alluring and engaging to elicit a visceral response. [2]


    This particular artwork was co-commissioned by the Yale Center for British Art and Historic Royal Palaces, Kensington Palace, and created especially for the exhibition "Enlightened Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte, and the Shaping of the Modern World".[3] This adds an aura of seriousness of intellectual and aesthetic intent to the sculpture. In the title of the work, the artist has identified the woman as Mrs Pinckney, or Elizabeth (Eliza) Lucas Pinckney, who at the age of 16 was put in charge of her father’s plantations in South Carolina. [4] She had a major influence on the colonial economy by developing indigo as an important cash crop to be processed as dye. [5] The sculpture is said to be the artist’s response to Eliza’s encounter with the German Princess Augusta in 1753 which further identifies her as a member of the social elite. [6] All of the above components help to retrieve the identity of the subject, the ideology being addressed as well as the message in the image.


    The artist has encoded his artwork with visual tropes that clarify and enforce his message. While the style of Eliza’s dress is based on 18th-century fashion, the fabric used is Dutch wax cloth which Amah Edo describes as a “marker of Africanness”. [7] Manufactured in Europe but using the Javanese batik printing technique, the cloth “came to be produced specifically for West African markets in the 1890s … [and] its aesthetic was adapted by manufacturers to suit these new consumers’ tastes”. [8]  Now widely perceived as symbolic of tradition, the Dutch wax cloth is regarded “as a high-end commodity desirable to elite customers”.[9] The material of the woman’s dress thus not only identifies her as a member of the elite but also refers to Africa as the source of her wealth: it is through the labour of the African slaves that Eliza was able to run her family’s plantations in America. Likewise, the blue of the material – and the bird on her finger – is a direct reference to her successful cultivation and processing of indigo. It can thus be seen that the artist explores concepts of race and class through a careful choice of materials and colours in his imagery. By dressing the white woman in African cloth, he complicates history and racial identity in an effort to startle the viewer’s conscience.

    As the plantation’s manager, Eliza occupied a position of power which is visually manifested by her being placed literally on top of the world. The latter is represented by an eighteenth-century globe that shows the colonial territories of the British empire. [10] Eliza is thus turned into a symbol of white superiority and privilege granted by the politics of imperialism. Her balancing act, however, proves to be precarious and elicits tension as the ball can roll at any moment and topple her from her position of power. It is also interesting to note that the globe is an attribute of Fortune, the fickle goddess of antiquity. Fortune is blind and even eyeless, and the globe “on which she stands or sits, originally indicated instability, but to the Renaissance it was rather the world over which her sway extended”. [11]  The headless Mrs Pinckney thus shows a cunning resemblance with the antique goddess Fortune “who bestows her favours at random”. [12]  


    The favours bestowed by Eliza relate to her release of the birds from the birdcage. However, instead of flying away to freedom, they come back to her. She playfully lifts her left arm for an indigo-blue bird to perch on her little finger, while another bright-coloured bird sits on her left shoulder and a third one on top of the cage. According to Shonibare, the birds are a metaphor for slaves and her gesture of setting them free symbolises her wish to emancipate the slaves – hence the title Mrs Pinckney and the Emancipated Birds of South Carolina. [13]  The narrative thus presents a paradox between the white woman’s privileged yet unstable position as powerful, wealthy mistress and her fickle wish to liberate the black slaves whose destiny is entirely in her hands.


    In this work, Shonibare has given his own interpretation of the story of Mrs Pinckney, choosing to focus on the effects of the slave trade and colonisation in the eighteenth century in the United States, then still British territory. While the playfulness of his rendition and its aesthetic appeal conceal the harsh realities of enslavement, the dehumanisation of black people as a result of colonial politics still filters through in the form of brightly coloured birds which, although set free, are so tamed – read oppressed and subjugated - that they are not able to fly.


    [1]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yinka_Shonibare (26 July 2021).

    [2] Yale News, 2017. Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA): ‘Mrs. Pinckney and the Emancipated Birds of South Carolina’. Video. Yale News, Yale British Art, 25 July 2017. https://news.yale.edu/videos/yinka-shonibare-mbe-ra-mrs-pinckney-and-emancipated-birds-south-carolina (26 July 2021)

    [3] Yale News 2017.

    [4] Yale News 2017.

    [5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eliza_Lucas (26 July 2021).

    [6] Yale News 2017.

    [7] Edo, Amah M. (2019). From African print to global luxury: Dutch wax cloth rebranding and the politics of high-value. In Mehita Iqani and Simidele Dosekun (Hrsg.). African luxury: Aesthetics and politics (pp. 77-92). Bristol, UK / Chicago, USA: Intellect, p. 82.

    [8] Edo 2019, p. 80.

    [9] Edo 2019, p. 85.

    [10] Yale News 2017.

    [11] Hall, James. 1974. Dictionary of subjects and symbols in art. London: John Murray, p. 127.

    [12] Hall, James. 1974. Dictionary of subjects and symbols in art. London: John Murray, p. 127.

    [13] Yale News 2017.

    Nobumasa Kiyonaga
    Nobumasa Kiyonaga

    The oeuvre of Yinka Shonibare CBE is often characterised by a colourful and at the same time amusing appearance. This facilitates the viewer's immediate access. This is also the case with his 2017 work Mrs Pinckney and the Emancipated Birds of South Carolina. What one perceives here at first glance is the figure of a lady wearing historical European clothing, a "Robe à la Française" from the 18th century. However, the clothing is unusually colourful. Moreover, the woman is standing on a sphere, albeit shakily and leaning forward somewhat. This image quickly connects with the traditional European iconography of "Fortuna", i.e. the admonishing, allegorical symbol of "fate". It turns out that the sphere is the globe.


    The graceful lady also has a strange head in the form of a birdcage. But its door is open and the three birds have long since escaped. This could be an allusion to Maurice Maeterlinck's The Blue Bird, the central message of which is the obvious true happiness. In any case, the caged head shows us that it is actually our thoughts that tie us down and hinder our actions, as is often the case. Seen in this light, at least this lady has succeeded in unmasking the internalised gender ideology and liberating herself mentally. But is it really a lasting liberation?


    Who actually is this lady, this "Mrs Pinckney"? What fate is at stake? She is not known here in Japan, for example. A look at Wikipedia, for example, will help: she is considered one of the first emancipated women in the USA, who achieved prosperity with her pioneering attempt to grow indigo on slave plantations in South Carolina. This dye was in particular demand for military uniforms in Great Britain at the time.[1] That is why the lady is wearing this indigo dress. But where does the artist's reference to Mrs. Pinckney come from? A direct connection is hard to find at first. However,  knowing that Shonibare describes himself as a "post-colonial hybrid"[2] - he was born in London as the child of Nigerian parents, grew up in Nigeria and studied in London - and that he very often uses "African wax prints" for his works,[3] one gains  more clues about the work.


    At present, those wax prints seem to represent "authentic" African life, but they have an Indonesian origin and were made by Europeans, especially Dutch, and sold and distributed in West Africa.[4] In this sense, they are in fact a transcultural product. Through their use, the artist points to the "cultural imagination as a power structure and means of domination"[5] in the spirit of the critique of representation. In this specific work, too, the wax prints, which have something in common with the fate of indigo, find their use in clothing.


    Thus, it turns out that the lady functions as the encouraging and, at the same time, admonishing symbol of the emancipation of women, which never proceeds in a linear fashion and is still threatened and endangered everywhere today. Moreover, this emancipation movement must always be seen in an even more complex context, which was and still is connected with the fate of countless people - in Mrs. Pinckney's case, for example, that of the slaves, according to the message of the work.


    [1]              https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eliza_Lucas_Pinckney (27 July 2021)

    [2]              Shoji, Sachiko. 2019. “History is Happening Now: What Connects Us All to the Art of Yinka Shonibare CBE.” In Exhibition catalogue Yinka Shonibare CBE: Flower Power. Fukuoka: Fukuoka Art Museum, p. 105.  Incidentally, this is the artist's first solo exhibition in Japan.

    [3]              Shonibare CBE, Yinka. 2019. “Artist Statement. Woman Shooting Cherry Blossoms.” In Exhibition catalogue Yinka Shonibare CBE: Flower Power, Fukuoka: Fukuoka Art Museum, p. 13.

    [4]              Ibid. According to Shoji, Japan also became involved in the production of those wax prints and their export to Africa from the late 1920s to the mid-1990s. See Shoji 2019, 106-107.

    [5]              Shonibare 2019.


    Ernst Wagner
    Ernst Wagner

    A life-size, headless, female mannequin balances on a globe showing the African continent from the front. Her Biedermeier-style clothing in bright colours shows a deep décolleté, the fabric pattern is Dutch Wax, which can be inferred from the information on the work. In combination with the birdcage and the three colourful birds outside the cage, the sculpture is reminiscent of surrealist montages or Magritte paintings. If one takes the object seriously, however, one gets the impression of a strange balance of lability and stability, of theatricality and ridiculousness, of immediate sensuality and learned allusiveness.


    The title refers to a concrete iconography that makes research necessary which - as a reward - helps to decipher the birds and the blue dress in the end: Mrs Pinckney refers to a prominent historical woman (Eliza Pinckney, 1722 - 93) whose biography - as one can read on Wikipedia - was deeply entangled with English colonialism and the American War of Independence. Shuttling between North America and England, she was remarkably innovative and entrepreneurial. The birds in the sculpture allude to a specific anecdote when Eliza Pinckney gave just such a gift to the mother of England's King George III. The blue of the dress can be seen as an allusion to Pinckney's production of indigo in South Carolina.


    The globe and the pattern of the dress - like the title - also allude to the theme of colonialism. Even the material specification of "Dutch Wax" tells a tangled story in colonialism. But the female role model embodied by Eliza Pinckney in her time, obviously denies the usual connotations associated with colonialism, slavery and looting. The birds outside the cage perhaps also allude to this immanent contradiction, thematising the opposition of freedom and captivity.


    Alluding seems to be the most adequate term to grasp the specificity of the visual language of this work. Nothing is clearly asserted, no thesis is posited. Rather, a dazzling, assembled, ambiguous figurine stands in the context of 18th-century colonialism, alluding to many themes that are especially significant today: Women's roles, capitalism, domination and exploitation of nature, colonialism, freedom and oppression.


    In our context, the question now remains as to how this work is located in the transcultural contact zones. It is now in a US collection of British art, the "Yale Center for British Art". The artist himself, on the other hand, is almost always referred to as a British-Nigerian artist; he himself uses his English title of nobility, CBE (Commander of the British Empire), in his name. Since documenta 13, he has been one of the best-known representatives of a Global Art. In terms of iconography, the work is also located at these interfaces. Through montage, it merges these associations into a hybrid that can ultimately no longer be resolved, an in-between that can no longer be assigned. This creates a fundamental openness that is repeated when we ask about its meaning: can we read the work as ironic alienation? Or as a commentary on history? Or as homage or, on the contrary, as criticism of the historical figure Pinckney? As a reflection of current and very serious issues or as a harmlessly playful object?


    A video on the website of the museum where the work is now located shows an analogous reception history (Yale News, 2017). How does the work constitute the “ideal” viewer? He or she is a decoding, deciphering viewer who allows the iconographic fixation to fail with relish because of the sensuality of the playful object, just as the narrative of Mrs Pinckney fails because of the mannequin's instability. The ideal, contemporary viewer simultaneously enjoys the openness and yet sees him-/herself confirmed in her anti-colonial habitus.



    EW: When I compared all three contributions, I was initially surprised by the large number of common intersections. This certainly points to the global power of interpretation of media representations in English (website of the collection at Yale, Wikipedia), which we could not escape either. We all researched Mrs. Pinckney on Wikipedia, we all trusted the video on the website as a source. But what is interesting now is how differently we deal with it and what different conclusions we come to. I have the impression that in your approach, Bernadette, the story of Mrs. Pinckney plays the biggest role, while in my text this story is rather only a possible reference point. I don't know if you can agree with me.


    NK: Yes, I also see these differences. With Ernst, I see more of a fundamental, principled attitude in the analysis of the work. In Bernadette's interpretation, I found the interpretation of the birds as "slaves" interesting. I myself saw in it the - temporarily - liberated soul of an emancipated woman. Moreover, in this context, I also find your reference to the paradox of the actually already liberated "slaves" particularly illuminating, as it seems to have been derived from your discussion of colonial history in Africa.


    BVH: When comparing our contributions, I was also reminded of the fact that art is always about other art, hence we looked for precedents that may have inspired the artist. But what I find most exciting about our interpretations are the differences in emphasis on the various meanings that are embedded in the work. For Ernst, the transcultural nature of the work stands out, as well as its openness in meaning. For Nobu, it is the reference to gender ideology and women’s emancipation that forms the core of the work, especially in light of ongoing gender discrimination. For me, it is the historical narrative that led me to interrogate the issue of racial discrimination which also continues today in movements such as #BlackLivesMatter.


    EW: I share this, and I would like to follow up with a question. Is it possible that our respective contexts in which we work have influenced this? Not in terms of content – we agree on that – but in terms of patterns of argumentation. If you, Bernadette, place so much emphasis on the story of Mrs. Pinckney, does this perhaps reflect the great oral, meaningful storytelling traditions in Africa? And when you, Nobumasa, on the other hand, elaborate Mrs. Pinckney as an encouraging and at the same time cautionary symbol, does this perhaps reflect the great ethical traditions in Asia? My refusal of direct meaning-making and ethical service, on the other hand, would then be a European-style reflexive evasive manoeuvre to a (preferably unassailable) meta-level?


    BVH: Good question indeed. In my opinion, this exercise shows how we are all conditioned by the sociocultural environment in which we live and work. Hence my response, from a South African point of view, focused on the story/history in order to highlight the importance of the work in decolonising the subject. While playfully complicating racial issues in a historical context, the artist mainly celebrates Africanness by means of materials, patterns and colours. This allowed me to infuse my interpretation with African epistemologies. Your response, Ernst, could be regarded as a refusal, perhaps, to acknowledge and engage with the deeper implications of the work and indeed rather shift the focus onto more theoretical concerns as inspired by German art historians? I am keen to hear Nobumasa’s view on this matter.


    NK: Ernst's question about whether a Japanese ethical tradition might secretly be reflected in my interpretation is very difficult for me to answer. But as Bernadette has just pointed out, the social context in which we work definitely plays a certain role. While globalisation has erased spatial distances, perhaps not necessarily mental ones. For Japanese today, Africa is still very distant, in the double sense mentioned above. Although Africa is the second largest continent with 55 countries and countless information is available, detailed and nuanced ideas about it are often missing from our consciousness. My leap into the general, or ethical, implication of the work could possibly be explained in this way. Seen in this way, I have probably unconsciously "traced" my own situation. But this also underlines the fact that the critique of representation – in the sense of a critical questioning of pictorial representations – is still as relevant today as it ever was.


    EW: I was very grateful to you, Nobumasa, for the emphasis on the ethical, because we always have to include the ethical dimension in the context of education. My argument from a German point of view would be that the interpretation of a work like Mrs. Pinckney must not be arbitrary. That would be the ethical responsibility of the interpreters. We will have to come back to this in a moment when we discuss conclusions for a toolbox for decoding images.


    But first I would like to learn more about the differences between our approaches – even though there is a large area of consensus. In the theoretical discussions we had some time ago, we clearly distinguished the Japanese concept of 'kansho kyoiku', the South African concept of 'art criticism' and the European concept of 'work immanence'. Could you elaborate on the question of how these positions are reflected in your texts?


    NK: The introduction of dialogue-based art viewing from the USA in the late 1990s revived the field of art education in schools or museums in Japan. Since then, this didactic method, which seems to seek to maximise the viewer's part in interpretation through its strict rejection of knowledge transfer and ultimately prioritises the discussion of interpretation, is still in vogue today. But a crucial question still arises as to how the meaning of interpretation, or meaningful interpretation, is secured without degenerating into mere arbitrariness. In this respect, too, our experiment seems to be very inspiring.


    BVH: At the University of South Africa we believe that the basic skills required to interpret objects of visual culture are best taught by beginning to practise art criticism. The proper domain of a critic is the description, interpretation and evaluation of concrete works of art. As a first step in this process, students must learn how to describe and interpret artworks. Essentially art criticism is a practice embedded in western epistemology that has been appropriated to study the art of contemporary Africa in a global context. When investigating the historical arts of Africa, the method remains the same although the local context of traditional culture and customs must be taken in consideration. My interpretation of Shonibare’s work was guided by these very same principles.


    EW: Finally, I would like to ask you something with regard to the 'methodological kit' proposed by the editors of this volume: Which methodological approaches for the interpretation of images do you consider absolutely necessary – independent of our respective Japanese, South African or European context? And I'll add a second question in a moment: Does that leave one area that plays a role exclusively in your respective local context?


    BVH: From an art historical point of view, the methods best suited for the interpretation of political images stem from a contextual approach which demands critical consideration of the cultural context of the work, its artist and of the social practices and power relations in which it is embedded. As the interpreter, you can apply the iconological method: first describe what you see – formal elements and details – and then identify the iconography, the specific subject and symbolism of the work. Do some research on facts and historical context, as well as the reasons why the work was made or commissioned. Then you can explain how all this information was put together to express the meaning or content of the work and decide what message or ideas the artist was trying to communicate. Because every interpreter comes to the artwork with his/her own worldview, the interpretation will differ depending on that worldview and not on the local context. For example, because I attach more importance to the idea of decolonisation, my contextual approach is combined with and influenced by decolonial theory.


    NK: Basically, Bernadette, I gladly agree with you, especially with regard to your gradual approach. I also think it is reasonable and sensible from a pedagogical point of view. But this raises the question of what actually constitutes a "political image" or "when" an image becomes political. Of course, there are pictures or works of art that are obviously and unmistakably recognisable as such, but there are also those that are much more subtle, that are not so noticeable to foreign eyes, or that were not originally created with political intentions, but that in retrospect seem to be quite political. What one considers to be political depends, after all, very much on the view of the observer, possibly even completely apart from the original intention of the creator. In this respect, it seems to me that a fundamental attitude is indispensable for the viewer to be able to keep a mental distance from a picture and its context as well as from himself and his own horizon in order to perceive a picture (also) politically.


    EW: Thank you both, because from my point of view I cannot and do not need to add anything more. I completely agree that an iconological basis, as Bernadette has formulated it, is needed. And I am deeply convinced that the reception-historical and reception-theoretical extension that Nobumasa has added is absolutely necessary, indeed indispensable, for the toolbox. I can add nothing to this bundle of methods.

    What perhaps came up short in our conversation were the different cultural conditions and the resulting consequences for interpretation. But we'll make up for that on another occasion.


    NK: Finally, let me add something to my previous statement. For responsible interpretation, we need above all a willingness to engage in dialogue. I experienced this again in our conversation and our experiment also shows this in an exemplary way.