Art is a liar, Yinka Shonibare claims. In this photographic sequence, the artist has refashioned the 1945 film The Picture of Dorian Gray, itself a refashioning of Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel of the same name. In the original narrative, the handsome and youthful white title character trades his soul for outward beauty and youth: his painted portrait, rather than his physical body, will reflect the ravages of age and wrongdoing. The narcissistic Dorian declines into moral corruption yet physically reflects none of his age or degeneracy. The tale ends in tragedy, when Dorian attempts to destroy the now hideous portrait; instead, the portrait reverts to one of beauty and Dorian to an old, decrepit man as he kills himself instead. In Shonibare’s retelling, we see the title character’s transformation take place in his body, specifically when he encounters his reflection in a mirror.
By inserting himself into the role of an 1890s white English dandy, Shonibare, an Englishman of Nigerian descent and upbringing with a paralytic disability that forces him to use a cane, asks viewers to question and reconsider what he believes are inherently false historical and literary narratives. Surely, his presence would have been unlikely, if not impossible, in polite Victorian society. By placing himself in the role of Dorian Gray, Shonibare brings to light those who have been excluded from upper-class English society—and whose stories have been neglected in our histories. Shonibare’s cinematic images re-identify the fictional character Dorian Gray but also allow the artist to question the meanings of his own heritage: what does it mean to “be European” or “be African,” to represent or reflect the values of an entire continent? Further, by reimagining The Picture of Dorian Gray, a novel about inner and outer selves and how they do or don’t relate to each other, Shonibare offers the opportunity to question whether how we perceive ourselves is how we present ourselves. When we look at others, when, if ever, do outward appearances relate to inner realities?
From the exhibition: Other Side:
Art, Object, Self (August 12, 2017 – January 3, 2018)