The show marks a significant transition and a pivotal moment in the artist's practice. There is a complete absence of the Dutch wax batik textiles for which he is known. He instead takes the fabric's designs and manipulates them in new ways. Traditions of classical art and religious iconography are explored in the exhibition; Shonibare uses the patterns of the batik fabrics to interrupt these themes. The idea of dismantling the boundaries in western understanding is indicated in the title of the show. By leaving the ‘trace' of his trademark batik motifs, Shonibare gives a personal insight into the complexities of identity, hybridity and colonial history.
The exhibition is divided into two parts: Gallery One is focused on ideas of rationality in classical art and Gallery Two, on religion. The show coincides with a major commission currently displayed on the Royal Academy's façade on Burlington Gardens. In the exhibition, a monumental hand-painted installation will echo the same motif; the Royal Academy being an important link and on-going inspiration for the artist following his election as an Academician in 2013. Concurrent with this show is a new commission, ‘The End of Empire', which is presented with ‘The British Library' and on view at Turner Contemporary in Margate.
Upon entering Gallery One, we are struck by the absence of sculpture. Instead, an expansive wall painting is framed by the white walls of the gallery. Unlike previous iterations of these impressive installations, here there are no sculptural elements. This work sets the tone for the show as the wax batik pattern is stripped from the fabric and positioned in a new context. Dutch wax batik fabric was inspired by Indonesian design, mass-produced by the Dutch and eventually sold to the colonies in West Africa. In the 1960s the material became a new symbol of African identity and independence. Since the early 1990s, Shonibare has used it to represent the flexibility of identity as much as the implications of colonialism. The wall painting is completed by an accompanying floor drawing rendered in gold and red and inspired by Leonardo da Vinci's ‘Vitruvian Man'. Da Vinci's drawing was intended to demonstrate that man is the measure of all things. Shonibare's version here is a black figure and a hybrid of both man and woman. The two elements form one immersive work, of which the viewer becomes a part on entering the room.
In another gallery three sculptures recognisable as David, Venus de Milo and the Discus Thrower, are gloriously adorned with batik patterns. Shonibare is renowned for creating dynamic figures in motion, dressed in Victoriana costumes reproduced in batik fabric. The figures' lithe bodies have been hand-painted with the batik designs. Importantly, these have been altered by the artist. Much like the artist's series of self-portraits in which he superimposed batik patterns onto his own face, these new works put the pattern directly onto the skin. In doing so, Shonibare clashes the ideological implications of the textile with classical sculpture. Importantly, unlike previous works that bore antique globes in place of a head; here the figures have contemporary globes that map a post colonial landscape. This deftly denies any notion of race and focuses our attention instead on figure's pose and its connotations of sexuality, masculinity, athleticism and the ideal body.
The series of screen-prints on canvas in Gallery Two is Shonibare's largest to date. A key feature of Shonibare's work is its visual appeal, and these are immediately seductive. Figures from Christian and African religious iconography merge into fantastical hybrids. Shonibare is able to make these works by drawing on a large tablet, using new technology that was not available to him before. This is the first instance in which we see Shonibare's drawing, what the artist describes as ‘hand expression', on such a large scale. Each work begins with an image of a European religious figure in a classical pose. Shonibare then overlays this with elements of Dutch Wax batik patterns and African ritual masks. "First of all [I] think about picture making itself: the history of Modernism and the aesthetic of the mask in Modernist painting. So we are going back to Picasso I guess. And then taking that signifier of religious ritual, which is the mask, and overlapping one religious symbol with another religious symbol". By combining powerful imagery with their respective mythologies, he creates a hybrid: what the artist calls ‘a third myth'.
Shonibare's presentation flirts with the expectations of the audience, removing the textiles for which he is known. The mimesis of the fabric is an important move for the artist. Shonibare sees the material as a metaphor for interdependence: complexity and ambiguity are the cornerstones of his artistic narrative. His specific concerns here; art history, the power of iconography and religion, are powerfully brought together. With each of them he interrupts familiar references by overlaying the image with the wax batik pattern. In doing so he exercises individual agency and aesthetic creativity, which are ideas that are central to humanism. This has long been present in Shonibare's work, and this exhibition should be read as a celebration of human expression, achievement, beauty and the pursuit of intellectual and religious liberty, regardless of race and time. ‘...and the wall fell away' demonstrates an irreverent disregard for the binaries presented in western understandings and offers a contemporary deconstruction of the classics.