Please tell us a bit about your background, how you started your career as an artist.
I was born in the UK and returned to Nigeria as a child. I returned to the UK at age 17 and decided, much against my parents’ wishes, that I wanted a career in art at 17 years old. After persuading my parents that being an artist could be a viable career path (instead of the traditional career in law, medicine, banking etc that most African parents prefer), I started art school whilst also working part-time to ensure I had a steady income stream. In 1996, I won the Paul Hamlin Award for artists which gave me £30,000 (equivalent to a bursary of £10,000 per year for 3 years). This was a lot of money in those days and enabled me to give up my part-time job and focus on my passion to be an artist.
Is it always important for you to link your work back to your African roots?
I think that even if I don’t want to link my work to my African roots, people seeing my work will always make that connection. I started to explore my African roots after an incident in college. I was making art about events in Russia and my tutor asked me why I wasn’t making authentic African art. He thought that as an African I didn’t have the right to be interested in global issues and I thought that was quite naïve of him. However, that helped me understand that people take what they see on the surface and expect you to be a stereotype. I decided that I would explore those issues because they are important, however, I would do so in a more complex way.
A lot of your work explores the themes of cultural identity, race and political history. Are world events a source of inspiration?
If you are a person of African origin, you cannot escape the legacy of colonialism. Africa is always in some kind of relationship with the West. That involves history and our place in the world as Africans. To really understand yourself, you have to understand your own history. I use batik as a medium for my artwork because it is associated with African history and I am very much interested in history. I did some research and found out that the fabrics were Indonesian influenced fabrics produced by the Dutch and sold to Africa. I am very interested in the trade routes of global relations between Africa, Asia and Europe and I think the fabrics are a great metaphor for those cross-continental relationships.
My work, Nelson’s Ship, that was displayed in Trafalgar Square is a key part of British history which is partly my own history — otherwise, I wouldn’t be speaking English with you now. I wanted to explore this so I depicted Admiral Nelson’s ship ‘HMS Victory’ in a giant bottle. I changed the sails to batik African textiles. The work has now been acquired by the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
How do you manage your finances, savings and investments?
I have always approached my finances in a strategic way. As an artist, sometimes you make a lot of money, and in some low periods, you won’t make any! I recognised I needed to educate myself from the outset about different types of investing. Firstly I invested in property, then into a portfolio of equities and lastly in art. I have sold more of the equities as I have gotten older and now my portfolio of investments is 60% ‘buy to let ‘properties, 20% equities and 20% artwork. In terms of art as an investment, I would not advise anyone to buy art purely as an investment. In my opinion, you should buy the art you love; enjoy it and display it and if it appreciates — that would be a bonus!
What keeps you busy outside work?
My other interests include cinema, going to the opera and watching contemporary dance. I have supported a UK theatre company for the past 9 years. I’m also into organic farming — I have a 54-acre farm in Nigeria and i enjoy learning about the development of sustainable food sources. I have even set up a supper club to explore the intersection of food with art. I recently set up the Yinka Shonibare Foundation and this is a big part of my life outside of work; my foundation supports young artists and ensures they can display their work and receive mentoring and advice.
What advice would you give to anyone starting a career as an artist?
Firstly education is key, learning about the history of art and understanding the context of what you are studying is hugely important. It’s also important to note that there is the little immediate financial gain from a career in art, only the very fortunate few will be able to continue as artists without having to earn a second income, so be prepared to take on part-time work in order to fund the early years.
What do you consider your greatest achievement to date?
After supporting artists informally for many years I am very proud of the fact I have managed to set up my own foundation to properly structure my philanthropy work and continue mentoring and teaching. My work is able to reach people of all ages, sex and race, both in Nigeria and UK, through the dual platforms of Guest Projects UK and Guest Artists Space Foundation in Nigeria. This is something that I am hugely passionate about.