Sophie Baggott talks with Yinka Shonibare MBE, celebrated artist and Chief #Artskicker 2017
Yinka Shonibare has always been one for sailing against the wind.
Seven years ago the leading Anglo-Nigerian artist set out to create a scale replica of Nelson’s ship, HMS Victory.
Yinka made 37 billowing sails from bold, patterned textiles, honouring the city’s multiculturalism.
In May 2010, Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle was unveiled in Trafalgar Square and was the first Fourth Plinth artwork commission by a black British artist.
Yinka’s commitment to helping others has led to many young artists’ success – and landed him the Chief Artskicker Award for 2017. Celebrating those who inspire in East London’s art scene, the Artskickers Awards judges saw Yinka as someone who has led the charge in using his unique brand of magic for good.
“I was pleased to hear that somebody is noticing what I’ve been doing,” said Yinka, who set up Guest Projects eight years ago to offer artists a free space to work and exhibit.
“The reason really was to provide opportunities for emerging artists to show their work in London,” he said.
“And to create a space where they feel they can actually fail and can experiment without the pressures of commercial galleries.”
The artist has been in his Hackney studio, which faces the canal by Broadway Market, for 25 years.
“In that time it’s become extremely commercial,” said Yinka, who was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2004.
“On the one hand, it’s a good thing because it means artists can make a living. But it’s difficult for experimentation.
“Your chances of being able to show your work as a young artist in a commercial gallery are very low.”
In further support of artists, Yinka’s studio holds Supper Club every three months or so – a forum for creative minds to discuss ideas over food.
The idea of community is very important to Yinka. “It’s all about the responsibility to support our neighbours and our friends,” the artist explained. “I feel actually it’s even more important now in the present political climate.
“There are lots of young artists, unfortunately, who are now slowly being pushed out of the area as things are getting more expensive and that’s a shame.
“I think the government should look at creating possible creative zones where landlords can’t increase rent.
“Collaborating – bringing people together – is important.”
Artists involved in Guest Projects have come from as far as Poland and the USA.
Artworks expressing universal issues are the ones that mean most, Yinka believes. Of all his output, Nelson’s Ship is the one that makes him most proud.
“It’s the one everyone knows about,” he said. The artwork now stands tall at the National Maritime Museum, after a public appeal raised more than £250,000 to support the move.
Yinka is currently curating two rooms for the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition.
What makes you most proud of East London?
It has to be the sheer amount of diversity in the borough.
Where do you like to spend most time?
Too many to name! The large pond in Victoria Park, the beautiful canals, the market at London Fields, Brick Lane…
El Ganso Café in Broadway Market does amazing tapas and Shoreditch House is good, too. Can’t beat a curry on Brick Lane as well!
What changes have you seen in the area?
Young artists are being pushed out by prices.
Is there anything you’d change?
I’d like to see creative zones for people to experiment without landlords raising rent.
How would you describe East London in a word?
If East London were human who would it be?
Someone trendy but rough round the edges.
What’s East London’s best-kept secret?
The canals, definitely.