Words of warning and welcome:

This is very much my blog, so don't be surprised if this doesn't follow accepted patterns and norms. Obviously it started out as a blog about my cross-dressing but it has developed a great deal since then. It is a place where I can be anonymous and honest, and I appreciate that.

It will deal with many things and new readers would do well to check out the New Readers' Page above this and the tag down there on the right. Although there's nothing too bad in here there will be adult language, so be careful. If you think this needs a greater control, please let me know. Thank you!

Sunday, 24 November 2013


A while back the family went to have look in Little Narnia (no, really) and saw something that has stayed with us since then. It was a family trip to the YSP and we'd been a few times before. As we move to decorate the house with images and pictures that mean something to all of us Tilly suggested we get a few of these images in frames and hang them up. As I happen to share Tilly's love of these images and the artist, but for very different reasons (well, some of them are similar, we are both historians after all), I readily agreed.

The images are, of course, from the Yorkshire Sculpture Park installation by Yinka Shonibare MBE. We went along originally because the YSP was a favourite haunt of the children's, hence the moniker 'Little Narnia', and we weren't really expecting much from the main exhibition by this oddly named artist that I, naively, assumed must be pretentious and female. Not so. We were somewhat wowed by the use fabric and dress to evoke a time that both of us ought to find pleasantly familiar but that made me feel rather challenged. And I like it when art challenges me to think in new ways. As you can probably remember actually.

A Bull market?
For example, take Revolution Kid, the boy with the head of a bull calf. For a start, the pose is lifted almost entirely from the awesome Liberty Leading the People, thereby referencing a genuine revolution and the active role that youth played within it. Secondly, the gun is a replica of the gold plated weapons favoured by Colonel Gaddafi, bear in mind that this was made during and after the civil war in Libya. Then there's the fact that the bull calf is the head rather than any other part of the body - the attitude of the youthful revolutionaries personified and neither deified nor ridiculed, but noted and respected nevertheless. The clothing too, a mixture of late Regency (thus white history) and Dutch print fabrics associated with Africa, and so a comment on the hypocrisy of the West (the Dutch print fabrics were made from raw materials supplied by Africa and chiefly sold back to the people there at a much high price) in relation to the revolutionary activity. Also, one hand holds a Blackberry phone in twin recognition of the power of social media in the Arab Spring and the London Riots in 2011.

Terrible beauty that I would so like to wear
Then there's How to blow two heads off at once (Ladies) which is one of my favourites. It wasn't actually at the YSP when we visited either time but I feel that it speaks to me more than do the other works. Here we have two female mannequin posed in a dueling posture with eighteenth century flintlock pistols. I love the fact that, because they are headless, it is impossible to discern emotion or how the participants are taking the stance. Are they seriously having a duel or are they playfighting with the idea that they will make up? Then there's the dress - inkeeping with the period of the weapons but again with the Dutch print fabric design that was explained above. In this case I feel that it enhances that style of clothing from the era and brings out the flamboyant nature of the time and the act that they are engaged in. Not to mention that, because these are women with firearms, we are subverting the commonly accepted view of aggression and honour even in the modern world. And I like that kind of thing. Obviously. I especially love the careful crafting of the clothing and the way that this theme is repeated in much of Shonibare's work. His love of the female form and of playing with cross-dressing (his short film on the death of the King of Sweden has women in the roles of both King and assassin for example) seems to speak to my own thoughts on the same. In a few cases I simply take joy in the representation that he offers of female garments.

Take these biting satires on the role of women and the powerful in the Regency and, by extension, in modern society as an example. He invokes the fantasy setting of a well maintained garden, clearly gentry owned and thus rich, aloof and powerful in a political sense. And he shows the baseness of the emotions associated with it. There are a number of pieces like this, with men taking women, women taking women and, interestingly, no women taking men. In the small amount of reading about them that I've done Shonibare says they speak about power relationships in the modern world as well as the historical world that he suggests with the dress styles and the way in which they are posed. Certainly it makes sense that, in the modern world, there are no women taking men from behind. Indeed, it very much a man's world now in a way that, beyond the gates of the ancestral piles and stately homes of the eighteenth century, it wasn't quite yet at the time. Obviously men were on the rise following the Enlightenment and Renaissance but women weren't quite pushed out of ordinary life and ordinary positions of influence and power just yet, that would have to wait until the Industrial Revolution kicked off in earnest. Given the proximity of that event to the period depicted one has to wonder if that wasn't a consideration for Shonibare as well.

Also, the noise from the water as you
looked around the whole room with
these things in plays an interesting

I was also very taken with the Four Elements where each element was personified in a different way. The man representing fire with a gas lamp for a head with a stance that suggests he has been surprised by an idea that, with a gas lamp for a head, he must have had. Or the water man who is pouring a drink that he can never have because his head is the tap that pours the water (and, ominously, has an Indian complexion). Or the woman struggling against a high wind for a representation of air, her dress wrapped against her legs and her body bowed against the pressure of the wind that blows in her face meaning that she must struggle against the tide. I love the parallel to Feminism, whether or not he meant it, and the way that there is the intersectionality of oppression hinted at with the pigmentation of the skin on this one (Shonibare ought to know, he's black and increasingly disabled). The one that really brought this home to me, though, was the one for earth. In which we have a figure in a posture reminiscent of strength and power in clothing that is all in 'earthy' tones and a deliberately vague pigmentation that could be anyone and anywhere. More to the point, the generally male figure has breasts and is wearing a long dress over a pair of trousers, which I love as a comment on how the Earth ought to be.

You see what I mean?
Earth is also the favourite because of that combination of masculine and feminine that is totally deliberately done. I could stand for a long time and just look at that individual image because of the power it holds in my own life. That longing to be both at the same time, but not in a sexual sense rather in a mental way. I've said before that I quite enjoy my male parts and the Earth mannequin is very much in a traditionally male posture, proudly wearing the trousers and tensing as if for a fight. I get the impression that this may be a comment on environmentalism than gender-politics on the part of Shonibare but I find my meaning in the latter. The addition of a dress train, along with the hint of breasts, to me embodies that longing that I sometimes feel. I have no desire to stay as a woman but I often feel that there is something missing physically in my chest area, no other way to adequately describe that, and the longing to wear clothes that are designed for women is well documented here already, so probably won't bear repetition now. At least, not while I'm discussing art and revolution. It also taps into my desire to see women more represented in my teaching and understanding of history because I feel insulted by their omission and left out as I often identify more with their trials and struggles than I do with those of 'Great Men' who usually dominate both the understanding of and the experience in History.

Terrible beauty again.
One wonders is that is what Shonibare
shoots for with much of his work. The most
classically 'beautiful' of his work is often
coupled with an underlying strand of pain,
misery or just plain cruelty. But even that
strand stands apart as almost
beautiful. Like a mushroom cloud.
Finally there's the ballerina on a mushroom cloud that was loved by the Girlie. I honestly don't know how best to interpret this but there is definitely something that keeps me coming back to look at it. The graceful beauty of the ballerina echoed in the deadly beauty of a nuclear explosion and then opposed almost at the same time by the terrible nature of that black cloud rising into the sky. The combination of death and the prettiness that is equally present in the young mannequin with no head - a life devoted to an art form that is increasingly seen as irrelevant and flippant but also that spits out the young when they become too old with little to support them and few transferable skills but the memory of their training and the money we hope they put away during their time as performers. That's for most, not all. It was that same transience that I caught when looking at works by Degas that captivated me in Sixth Form. That feeling that these women were not actually being represented for their beauty but for the fact that they would soon pass. A sadness over their actions and their futility, after all, Degas didn't know it but the First World War was coming to sweep away the life that he was recording. Shonibare does know it, he clearly knows his history, and has juxtaposed his dancer with war of another kind that would sweep everything away. And, obviously, there is something for me in the ballerinas. Duh.

If you haven't, he's worth checking out. So is the YSP!

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