‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.’
Boy Balancing Knowledge II (2006) is instantly recognisable as a work by Yinka Shonibare MBE: a mannequin dressed in trademark Shonibare Dutch wax patterned cotton, and with a globe for a head (another of the artist’s hallmarks), the figure stands precariously on one leg, balancing an improbably stacked pile of books that is already beginning to fall. A characteristically playful, dynamic sculpture, Boy Balancing Knowledge II plays signifiers of identity off against one another in its interrogation of the concept and status of knowledge in a hyper-globalised world. At the heart of the work is the figure, dressed in notionally African dress; but, as the globe also references, this ‘authentic’ African clothing is the product of a globalised process – the cloth is produced in the Netherlands for sale in Indonesia, before the excess supplies are sold back to suppliers in the UK. Yet contrasted against this figure of globalised Africanism is the stack of books the mannequin is struggling to carry: a collection of mid-twentieth century academic English hardback books. These books, with their classical Oxbridge stylings, seem to embody the educational establishment, and indeed, the very concept of knowledge exported around the world, and pursued by children like Shonibare himself. Shonibare was born in England but raised in Nigeria, speaking Yoruba at home but English at school – the administrative language of the country inherited from the British Empire.
As Shonibare himself has said, it is this balancing of globally mediated national identities that lies at the heart of his practice: ‘It is essential… to give a sense of my own hybrid identity and my background as it is the basis of my practice. I am a product of the post-colonial period. I was born in 1962 in England to Nigerian parents, two years after Nigeria gained its independence from Britain. Although I was born in Britain, I grew up in Lagos and later returned to Britain to complete my education. It is therefore normal for me to switch between cultures. (Y. Shonibare MBE, ‘Fabric, and the Irony of Authenticity’, in Annotations I, ‘Mixed Belongings and Unspecified Destinations’, ed. Nikos Papastergiadis, London, 1996, p. 38).