Lady Na Master
British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare MBE (b. 1962, London) is best known for his practice that spans painting, sculpture, photography, film, and performance. His works examine race, class, and the construction of cultural identity with sharp political commentary that explores colonial history and its global legacy. Cultural hybridity is at the center of his investigation of the provenance of social values and identities.
Lady Na Master features twenty-seven headless dolls, richly costumed in colorful robes. Set atop a high table, viewers encounter the figures at eye level. Shonibare frequently uses batik textiles—patterned fabric popular in 1960s African liberation movements as a symbol of Pan-African identity. Originally from Indonesia, these lively garments were introduced to West Africa by 19th-century Dutch traders, a complex history that Shonibare mirrors through his eclectic collage forms.
This installation was originally commissioned for Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti (2003) at the New Museum in New York, a group exhibition that explored the eponymous Nigerian folk hero and activist. This work takes its name from the final lyrics of Kuti’s 1972 song “Lady,” an anthem for the newfound power of modern African women that contrasts traditional African women who “go do anything [her man says]” with their feminist counterparts who “[get] power like a man.” Kuti’s legacy is controversial: an outspoken critic of Nigeria’s military dictatorship during the 1970s and founder of a radical musical commune, he would later be criticized for marrying twenty-seven women. Lady Na Master thus represents the problematic role of women in liberation struggles that conservatively interpret “traditional” ideas of gender.
Shonibare moved to Lagos, Nigeria, at the age of three, but returned to London to study at Byam Shaw School of Art and Goldsmiths College, where he graduated in 1991 as part of the Young British Artists (the YBAs) generation. Shonibare’s work has been exhibited widely at international museums including Royal Museums Greenwich, London (2013); the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney (2009); the National Museum of African American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC (2009); the National Gallery, London (2007); and Tate Britain, London (2004), among many others. His work is held in the collections of institutions worldwide such as the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and the British Museum, London. Shonibare lives and works in London.