The ever-well-informed African Art in London announced this week that Yinka Shonibare’s contribution to the fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square — Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle (2010) — has been bought for the nation after a successful campaign by National Maritime Museum and the Art Fund:
The artist calls a ship in a bottle ‘an object of wonder’ and this work has certainly captivated crowds, fast becoming a favourite among Londoners and visitors alike. In common with the original, it has 80 cannon and 37 sails set as on the day of battle. Materials include oak, hardwood, brass, twine and canvas. Its richly patterned textiles – used for the sails – are of course a departure from the original. These were inspired by Indonesian batik, mass-produced by Dutch traders and sold in West Africa. Today these designs are associated with African dress and identity. [Remember Neelika’s post on the excitement about ‘African fabric’.] In such ways, the piece celebrates the cultural richness and ethnic diversity of the United Kingdom, and also initiates conversations about this country’s past as a colonial power. (Art Fund)
Shonibare’s piece is undoubtedly one of the more interesting contributions to the plinth, a recent space for public art, and one proclaimed by the media as the most significant. I’m always unclear how much an artist, if they remain committed to structural change, should participate in these institutions, or accept institutional plaudits (Shonibare is an MBE). But it is reassuring that the nation has bought a treasure which signals such ambivalence about the status of the nation itself.