7th August 2023

“Justice for All”: Yinka Shonibare

“Justice for All”: Yinka Shonibare, Sunday 23 August 2023

A sermon in the Summer Sermon Series, preached by the Precentor, Canon Anna Macham

(2 Peter 1:16-19, and Luke 9:28-36)

During August, we’re holding a summer sermon series on our current art exhibition that you see all around you here in the Cathedral, “To Be Free.”  Today’s artwork is Yinka Shonibare’s beautiful sculpture entitled “Justice for All,” that, if those of you in the nave turn around in your seats, you can see behind you at the West End of the Cathedral; the female figure, Lady Justice, dressed in a pink, brightly patterned ankle-length garment, apparently fashioned from “African” batik fabric.


Before coming to work here at the Cathedral, I worked in a parish in South East London, on the Old Kent Road.  As well as our Church of England Church in our estate, the Old Kent Road was filled with Pentecostal Churches, many of them made up of communities from countries such as Nigeria, Ghana or Sierra Leone.  Some of them had neon flashing signs outside, and brilliant names like “The Holy Ghost Zone.”  On a Sunday morning, the buses and entire road from one end to the other would be awash with colour, as the West African families, especially the women, made their way to Church in beautiful, brightly coloured dresses like the one on Shonibare’s sculpture.  To me, this style of dress is one that I very much associate with West Africa and the Nigerian and Ghanaian families that I knew.


So I was surprised to discover then, when Shonibare’s sculpture was installed here as part of our exhibition, that the fabric these dresses are made of is not actually of African origin at all.  Though commonly described as “African print” fabric, it actually originated and was originally produced, in Asia and Europe.  Inspired by Indonesian batiks, manufactured in the Netherlands and in Manchester, and marketed in the nineteenth century to West African buyers, Dutch wax fabrics later became a signifier of authentic African identity, especially in the wake of 1960s decolonization and the rise of pan-African nationalism.  This could seem ironic, in light of their European colonial origins, but it is precisely this sense of ambiguity and hybridity that draws Shonibare to their colourful, stylized images and abstract geometric patterning, and that motivates him to make art out of them.  Speaking of their tangled transcontinental history, he says, “What that means to me is a metaphor… of interdependence.”


Shonibare has become well known for his strategic use of these brightly coloured fabrics in his artworks, and the sculpture in our exhibition is no exception to this.  “Justice for All” re-configures British sculptor F. W. Pomeroy’s Lady Justice (1905-1906), which stands upon the dome of London’s imposing Central Criminal Court (otherwise known as the Old Bailey).  Instead of her habitual golden garb, Shonibare’s Lady Justice is depicted- as we’ve already observed- wearing a brightly patterned, pink ankle-length garment, apparently fashioned from “African” batik.  With both hands outstretched, as in Pomeroy’s original, Lady Justice wields a sword in her right hand and balances the scales of justice in her left.  But in place of a head, she sports a hand-painted globe, featuring a map of the world.


For Shonibare, the globe- as in many others of his works- in his words “…is a kind of universal… a metaphor for the striving for the non-racial, the non-binary, a kind of non-binary space,” where people’s identity is not tied down to one thing or idea, or a stereotype.


The “Justice for All” sculpture was created in response to the murder of a black man, George Floyd, by a white policeman in America in May 2020.  Shonibare explains: “I wanted to think about justice, especially in the light of George Floyd’s tragic death… Justice has to be equally applied.  People of African origin do not seem to have fair justice.  Those injustices have always been there and things have to change.  Some if these issues I’ve explored in my work have been going on for thirty years and I’m sad to think that those things are still going on.”


Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration.  In this work Shonibare shines a light on the racial injustice that continues to blight our society, and many societies in the world, particularly the US.  Shonibare is not a Christian or a religious person, though he grew up in Nigeria as a Catholic. Born in London in 1962 to Nigerian parents, he moved to Lagos aged 3, where he was taught by Irish nuns. Though not now attached to any religion, he says: “Catholicism stays with you- the concept, if not the reality, of guilt and shame.”


Religion- and Christianity- are inextricably bound up with colonialism’s legacy.  It’s awful that they have been used to induce feelings of shame by those with power on those they have oppressed.  But a deeper Christian truth is the idea from Genesis that every person is made in the image of God.  This resonates deeply with the aims of the Black Lives Matter movement, that every life is of value- and with the idea that every life, including that of every Black human, is precious, and is of equal value in the sight of God.


To exhibit “Justice for All” here in the Cathedral, and in such a prominent position, where it is the first thing that the eye is drawn to when visitors walk into the building, is a bold thing to do.  Like many of his artworks, Shonibare’s sculpture is playful and lyrical, whimsically deconstructing the way that justice is imaged historically in Pomeroy’s classic statue.  But, at the same time, there is a dark and serious point behind it.  In characteristic style, Shonibare uses beauty and colour- instead of words- to draw us in, but then pricks the consciences of those who see and encounter his art.  He writes: “I want my audience to be comfortable, but then hit them with a jabbing laser.  I have to find a way of seducing them, and so aesthetics and materiality is a way into that.”


Shonibare is interested in the connections between classical sculpture, which was always white, and ideas of “racial purity.”   While Lady Justice’s dress is transformed with the artist’s uniquely designed signature Dutch wax batik patterns, her body too is painted-over with a colourful motif gleaned from Javanese batik- hybrid patterns, influenced by trade relations between the Dutch East Indies, Malaya, India and China.  To place such an exuberant, colourful sculpture in an English Cathedral, a place that many people would strongly associate with tradition and the establishment, a part of English culture and the Western European tradition, where many of our statues are white, and we don’t even notice it, is a bold statement of our values.


White, or gold, is the colour of today’s feast, and the colour we associate liturgically with holiness, righteousness and purity.  Facing us at the Cathedral’s entrance with its rich beauty and exuberant colours, Shonibare’s work challenges us to embrace difference. It’s good that we have included a sculpture by a British-Nigerian artist in our exhibition, but how inclusive are we in other art forms with which we are strongly associated, such as music, for example, with our great English choral tradition.  When we think of the great choral composers, we still tend to think of white men.  While secular choirs have made progress in this area, Cathedrals lag well behind in including in the repertoire we sing in our services day by day works by composers who are women or not European.


In scripture, there are countless examples of people being influenced by difference, of crossing borders, or moving between cultures, of communities becoming unavoidably enmeshed with each other.  In the book bearing her name, the Old Testament character Ruth, for example, crosses a border and becomes a stranger in a land with a long history of antagonism towards the land of her birth.  The Israelites, during the exile, are foreigners in an alien land, continually moving across the wilderness from one place to another. In a similar way, Shonibare’s work shows us that cultural identity is never fixed; identity is invariably multi-cultural.  His Lady Justice comes full-cycle: once an emblem of cultural dominance, she becomes a cipher for trade and global exchange.  The globe which replaces Lady Justice’s head symbolises how, in Shonibare’s words, “she is a figure in which the aspirations of all the different people are embodied.”  At a time when as a society we are having heated debates about immigration, Shonibare’s work is highly relevant- he does not give us the answers but challenges not to avoid difficult questions.


Shonibare does not reject tradition, in fact he enjoys it- but, as we’ve seen, he is contradictory, and loves to disrupt or challenge it.  Today, as I’ve mentioned, is the Feast of the Transfiguration.  You can’t help but think that, with his love of beauty and aesthetics, he would love a feast like today’s, with its focus on dazzling heavenly white light.  But he would also want to deconstruct it, and to find its human element too.  For our holiness to be real, our encounter with Jesus on the mountain top has to genuinely transform us, and turn us outwards, causing a revolution in our social relationships back down on earth.


Jesus, in his stories and his teaching, preaches the revolutionary message of kingdom of God, a kingdom not known by geographical borders as earthly kingdoms are but only by love, kindness and compassion, shown to the stranger in our midst.  And Paul, in his letters, speaks of the radical coming together of Jew and Gentile, slave and free.


Shonibare, in his work, challenges us to work across all cultural perspectives, embracing ambiguity and complexity in place of the rigid definitions of one another we often hold to.  This is the way that understands that we all depend on each other, a way that looks beyond stereotypes, such as my own well meaning but- as it turned out- naïve assumption was that there was something uniquely and authentically African about the batik fabric of my parishioners’ dresses.  It’s a way that understands that all of us are human, and equal in the eyes of God, a way that challenges a tradition that values only whiteness, and a way that- like Lady Justice, shines a light on injustice.  It is the way of the rich and exuberant, prophetic Kingdom of God in which all of us are invited to share, a Kingdom that knows no borders and that operates only in the currency of love.