Yinka Shonibare’s The British Library is a large-scale installation which explores issues of race and immigration in British history.

The work comprises 6,328 secondhand books covered in colourful batik fabric and presented on library shelves. Names are printed in gold foil on the spines of 2,700 of the books. These are the names of first- or second-generation immigrants to Britain who have made significant contributions to the nation’s culture, together with the names of people who have vocally opposed immigration. The remainder of the spines are blank, possibly to suggest a future as yet unwritten.

A research area provides an introduction to the project and a film archive of news and documentary clips, together with a list of the individuals’ names on the books, complete with their place of birth, heritage and profession. The empty space at the centre of the installation is intended as a place for discussion of the issues raised by the work.

The batik fabric used to cover the books is a signature feature of Shonibare’s work. Its origins lie in Dutch colonial fabrics which appropriated Indonesian patterns and techniques. These fabrics became popular in the marketplaces of West Africa and among the African diaspora in Britain. For Shonibare they symbolise the rich complexity of post-colonial cultures.

Shonibare was born in London to Nigerian parents. He grew up in Lagos and later studied at the Byam Shaw School of Art and Goldsmiths’ in London. He was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2004 and became a Royal Academician in 2013.


The artist

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