Yinka Shonibare MBE's monumental work Scramble for Africa consists of 14 life-size mannequins seated around a table, modeled after the Berlin Conference. (Work courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London)
The Barnes Foundation on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway houses an incredible collection featuring 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes and 59 Matisses, along with works by Manet, Degas, Seurat, Prendergrast, Titian, Picasso and so much more.
This month, the remarkable permanent collection is complemented by a stunning temporary exhibition of contemporary sculpture and paintings that would certainly make Dr. Albert Barnes, the museum’s namesake and founder, very proud.
Internationally renowned artist Yinka Shonibare MBE — the MBE stands for Most Excellent Order of the British Empire — returns to exhibit in Philadelphia for the first time since 2004, when the British artist of Nigerian descent was a resident at The Fabric Workshop and Museum, with an expansive exhibition and commission at The Barnes Foundation.
Yinka Shonibare MBE: Magic Ladders opens Friday, January 24 at the Barnes’ Parkway home, and will remain on view in the special exhibitions gallery through Monday, April 21.
Read on for an overview of this splendid temporary show and its accompanying programming, including details on the exhibition opening party on Friday, January 24.
With works on display around the world, Shonibare’s reputation as an acclaimed artist precedes him. Throughout the past decade, the London-based artist has shown his distinctive pieces everywhere from Washington D.C. to Hong Kong, with notable exhibitions including a monumental public sculpture in Trafalgar Square and a mid-career retrospective at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art.
A global citizen who makes art about global issues, Shonibare is perhaps best known for works that explore colonialism and post-colonialism through a contemporary lens. His works are political in subject and theme, but created with whimsy and parody, resulting a dynamic experience for the beholder.
A wholly engaging exhibition, Yinka Shonibare MBE: Magic Ladders address weighty themes including education, enlightenment, race, identity and authenticity, all through installations of vividly adorned sculpture and large paintings.
Consisting of approximately 15 sculptures, paintings, photographs and a room installation, the primary displays are life-size (or larger) mannequins dressed in colorful Dutch-wax fabrics, that are produced in Europe but closely associated with African prints and patterns.
Part of the Barnes-commissioned work Magic Ladders, Yinka Shonibare MBE's recent work displays child-like mannequins climbing book-filled ladders in reference to Dr. Barnes' devotion to education. (Photo by Stephen White; Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London)
Look for Big Boy, an androgynous, headless and racially ambiguous figure that symbolizes the mythological trickster and references the characterization of the Victorian-era dandy.
Just beyond Big Boy, Shonibare’s The Age of Enlightenment series depicts famous philosophers working at their craft. Each has a disability, though, which is something of an autobiographical reference, as Shonibare has had a physical disability since suffering from a severe illness when he was just 18 years old.
Displayed in its own gallery, Scramble for Africa comments on the historic Berlin Conference, when the African continent was divided into countries.
But perhaps the most exciting aspect of the installation is the brand-new work, Magic Ladders, a three-sculpture series commissioned by the Barnes Foundation, and supported by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.
In Magic Ladders, three children ascend ladders constructed of books written or read by Albert Barnes. The work beautifully weaves together metaphors of progression and freedom as tied to education, paying homage to Dr. Barnes’s interest in spreading knowledge as well as his devotion to contemporary art and African art, which he always displayed side-by-side with the works of European Impressionists.
To celebrate the grand opening of this remarkable exhibition, the foundation hosts a grand soiree on Friday, January 24 from 6 to 9 p.m. For a $25 ticket, guests can take in the exhibition, enjoy cocktails in the atrium, and hear live music from Luigi Mazzocchi and The Pagode Project and DJ Rich Medina. Tickets for the opening party are available online.
Also, look forward to the Barnes’ young professionals soiree on Friday, January 31 from 6 to 9 p.m. A night of “global glam,” the party includes live music, drink specials and after-hours access to the new exhibit and the permanent collection.
Come First Friday, February 7, an evening gallery-going event welcomes the Spoken Hand Percussion Orchestra, plus a gallery talk and more.
Admittance to the exhibition is free with price of admission into the gallery or to any event. Timed, ticketed admission is available for reservation online, and advance booking is highly recommended.
The Barnes’ incredible collection of post-Impressionist and early-modern paintings is worth the trip alone, but with a special exhibition on view, visitation is practically mandatory.
To see more works included in the exhibition, see below, and to see Shonibare’s work Space Walk anytime, visit The Fabric Workshop and Museum, where the work will be displayed in a window on Arch Street through the spring.
Yinka Shonibare MBE: Magic Ladders
When: January 24-April 21
Where: The Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway
Cost: $22, general admission; $20, seniors; $10, students and youth; free, children under 5; $10, Magic Ladders only
More info: www.barnesfoundation.org
Yinka Shonibare MBE's stunning work Victorian Philanthropist’s Parlour comments on Victorian values, particularly of the Margaret Thatcher era. Look closely for images of African soccer players in portraits. (Courtesy of the artist; James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London)
In another sculpture from the exhibition, Yinka Shonibare MBE's The Age of Enlightenment—Immanuel Kant, depicts a life-size fiberglass mannequin draped in Dutch wax-printed cotton. (Photo by Jason Mandella; Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London)