I always imagine Yinka Shonibare’s figures as characters within an unfolding drama. His indoor sculptures and installations often feature life-size mannequins suspended in the midst of action that plots diversely in diverse viewers’ minds. In those works, there is always something that captures our imagination beyond the objects’ mere appearance, disarticulating preconceptions, questioning history and its exclusions, inviting us to rethink cultural identity. Shonibare’s oeuvre is firmly rooted in a conscious ambivalence, treating signifiers as balls in the hands of a juggler. Like a magician at the end of the act, he delivers a critically whimsical Ta-da! at the reveal, except in this case the trick takes place far from where your gaze focuses. Playfulness, leisure, paradox, and satire are some of the elements that lure viewers into at times seemingly frivolous scenes capable of distorting any stance on truth, authenticity, or purity.
How Does a Girl Like You Get to Be a Girl Like You? is the first of many Shonibare works combining commercially printed batik—a textile associated with Africa but whose origins are embedded in an oxymoronic narrative of colonial embezzlements and reappropriations—with aristocratic Victorian dresses, producing the unique aesthetic that has given the artist worldwide recognition. Shonibare’s work deliberately challenges essentialist understandings of cultural identity. Produced in the context of a postcolonial artistic deconstruction with clear postmodernist overtones, How Does a Girl Like You Get to Be a Girl Like You? disassembles at least two metanarratives, namely British-ness—by using a Victorian style symbolic of the British Empire and certain ideas of Britishness—and African-ness, by echoing the contradictory origins of machine-printed batik to illustrate an invented so-called “African” identity.
The work owes its title to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 film North by Northwest, and to a line in that thriller that may have escaped the reader. Here you are: a flirtatious Roger O. Thornhill hides in Eve Kendall’s train cabin, hoping to elude the police. Mesmerized by Kendall’s charm, he begins a dialogue introducing the imminent romantic scene, in which he poses the question Shonibare quotes, to which she responds: “Lucky, I guess.” But luck has nothing to do with it, as Kendall’s profile fits the canonized archetype of the femme fatale—on the good side, in Kendall’s case—of film noir. Many contemporary theorists have explored the liminal space that the femme fatale occupies in the genre, and for some of these she is powerful, if also usually undone in the end by her desire for power. Others, though, see her as suffering a lack of agency in fulfilling a self-formulated representation—a type of internalized repression of her potential to exist sexually outside of the binary of beautiful, duplicitous temptress versus faithful lover. As such, she might even be argued to lack fictionality: is there an imaginative scope for her to explore the nature of her sexuality and desire toward a legitimate, rather than devious, empowerment that has agency beyond a projection of male fear and desire?
The scene that produced “How does a girl like you get to be a girl like you?” might seem unrelated to Shonibare’s piece, which poses three headless female mannequins, one looking inward between the other two, the other two looking outward. In this case—perhaps because it was Shonibare’s first use of this iconography—the mannequins’ motionless bodies may suggest that the artistic gesture involves pausing, taking distance from the subject of inquiry, contemplating the work from afar. This allows entry into a dialogue with the inward-turned character. She, I believe, is the girl like you, with whom the artist engages in discussion, conferring space to her fictionality as a bodily and psychic representation—acknowledging her agency.
Originally published in Among Others: Blackness at MoMA, ed. Darby English and Charlotte Barat (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Elvira Dyangani Ose, independent scholar