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    Members’ Reports

    Ian Bourland
    Center 42

    Ian Bourland

    Gold Standard

    During my time at the Center, I outlined a framework for a book about recent art focusing on the intersections of Africa, gold, and “value.” I also developed a specific chapter, “Black Gold” that builds outward from one work, a multi-canvas painting of the same name by Yinka Shonibare CBE. One version of this work is in a private collection and another nearby at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. As is now typical for his practice, Shonibare here stretched batik (mass-produced Dutch wax print fabric) over circular supports and overpainted the textiles with motifs in the titular colors. In this way, the painting is multiply resonant: the batik has long served Shonibare as a means to satirize the exoticizing gaze of global art publics, even as one might read specific regional histories from the arrayed surfaces. “Black gold” is also a colloquialism for petroleum, a key export of Nigeria, where Shonibare spent much of his early life. It is a commodity associated with economic inequality and environmental despoliation. Black and gold are, too, colors long associated with traditional western African arts, especially in Ghana, and are multivalent signifiers of Black internationalism.

    Yinka Shonibare, Black Gold I, 2006, acrylic paint on Dutch wax printed cotton canvas, Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Museum purchase, 2008-2-1. Image courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London. Photo: Stephen White & Co.

    Shonibare realized the Black Gold paintings toward the end of an early phase in his career, when he arranged smaller canvases in grids atop bright fields of color applied directly to gallery walls. When I talked to Shonibare about such works, he noted that he was taking on a deeper history of late modernism that tended to valorize aesthetic conventions associated with the apparent universality or rationality of minimalist and, eventually, conceptual art. In short, Shonibare’s painting is both about more recent issues in contemporary art and geopolitics—taking us back as far as the 1960s—as well as debates around where aesthetic meaning might be found at a moment of crisis for abstract painting. This was also a time of crisis for international financial policy: gold served as a crucial reserve and, for a time, as the standard for currency exchange—a system upended at precisely this juncture. Unsurprisingly, many artists on both sides of the Atlantic experimented with gold as both physical and symbolic material. I argue that these experiments laid the groundwork for several avenues of artistic practice that emerged in the last several decades of the twentieth century.

    Similarly, I contend that the confluence of material and symbolic issues that Black Gold brings into view inflects larger conversations about who is counted in art markets and rhetorics, and how social and economic value has long been determined in the global north. Accordingly, the book of which “Black Gold” is a part uses conceptually oriented chapters and case studies from the past 40 years to create vantages onto larger histories of colonialism, aesthetics, and cultural exchange. These conversations are pressing, as evidence mounts that ongoing processes of extraction pose ethical and ecological challenges that affect the world at large, certainly, but also resonate in our field. My time at the Center allowed me to bring these many strands into relation, in collaboration with the National Gallery’s library and its staff, and in sustained conversation with the fellows and deans.

    Georgetown University
    Ailsa Mellon Bruce Visiting Senior Fellow, summer 2021

    Ian Bourland will continue working on his book and a related edited volume while teaching at Georgetown University and researching in Europe and southern Africa.

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