Learning to Fly

If you happen to be passing Junction 38 on the M1 before the end of August you might want to take a detour. Yinka Shonibare MBE is exhibiting at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park: and for those who can’t get there, some of the works from his exhibition, ‘FABRIC-ATION’, can be glimpsed¬†here.

If Shonibare, who is British-Nigerian, has an artistic ‘signature’, it’s the attractive batik prints that draw us into the gritty and challenging subjects of his work. Delighted by the vibrant colours, we’re surprised to find ourselves suddenly wrestling with the London Riots, the oil trade, global food production, the Arab Spring, colonialism and aliens.

In his late teens Shonibare contracted an illness that left him with severely restricted mobility. Every detail of his artistic creations is conveyed to a team of people who build the works on his behalf. Shonibare talks about art as being his ‘vehicle for flight’¬†from all that might otherwise have restricted him: referring not only to his physical disability but to other people’s limited assumptions, based on racial and cultural stereotyping, about what sort of art they might expect from him.

Absorbed by the artwork and the artist’s story, I find myself wondering about the relationship between the thorns in our flesh and our ability to fly. Shonibare is rightly celebrated for the stand-alone genius of his art: not the-genius-of-his-art-in-spite-of-his-disability-and-other-people’s-racial-stereotyping. Yet that genius grows from the soil of his whole self and the most challenging aspects of his life experience, as well as the easier parts.

Most of us live with a thorn or two, even if they are not in any measure so debilitating as restricted mobility or the experience of racial stereotyping. Our thorns might be the emotional triggers that can be traced back to childhood; the low moments that overcome us when we least expect it; the disorientation inflicted by grief and loss; the sense of inadequacy in the face of other people’s competence; the scars left by relationships where trust was violated.

Some of our thorns can be successfully removed and the wounds might even heal. But there are others that we will always wrestle with one way or another. Perhaps the question is whether we can use them as spurs to discover our ‘vehicle for flight’. Can the difficult things that shape us become our jumping-off point: to a deeper sympathy with how the world works, to an insight that enables change in a community, to a new confidence to take life-enhancing risks? Even, perhaps, to our own version of creativity, however vibrant, gritty or rebellious that might turn out to be.