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Seattle Art Museum (SAM)

Nuclear Family

Photo: Susan A. Cole

Nuclear Family


Yinka Shonibare, MBE

British-Nigerian, born 1962

In this installation, a family of headless figures face each other, their clothes posing questions about the entangled relationship between Africa and Europe. Proper body language and layers of ruffles speak of the Victorian period in England, when children were dressed with particular care. The blasts of bright colors and barrage of clashing patterns, however, are hardly the combinations that a Victorian would choose. Yinka Shonibare's selections blur the boundaries.

Why has Shonibare chosen this unusual cloth for his installation? Why does this family stand stiffly apart from one another? How do other artists depict family life? How does Yinka Shonibare's Anglo-Nigerian upbringing illuminate parodies that exist in both Nigerian and British art?
Mixed media installation
Purchased with funds from Agnes Gund and Daniel Shapiro in honor of Virginia and Bagley Wright
Photo: Susan A. Cole
Not currently on view

For me, the role of the artist is to entertain, to seduce, to provoke, to challenge and to be historically relevant.

Yinka Shonibare, MBE, 2004

Family Portraits: Careful and Critical

The Hawk Family, late 18th or early 19th century, Thomas Rowlandson, 39.53
Just as Yinka Shonibare set up a definite relationship between mother and father, sister and brother in Nuclear Family, so other artists have made choices about how to present a family's appearance. Here are a few examples that showcase family differences and resemblances.
Sharecroppers Family, Hale County, Alabama, 1936, Walker Evans, 83.153
Unlike many Depression-era photographers, Walker Evans made an effort to avoid dramatizing the poor conditions of his subjects.  Facing this family at eye level and in even light, they are formally united but not dejected.  In 1936, Evans and writer James Agee lived with three tenant farming families in rural Alabama, documenting their lives in pictures and words for the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.  This particular image was not published in the book, but it demonstrates the resilient force Evans saw in rural families.   
© (1957), 2009 Imogen Cunningham Trust
Ruth Asawa Family and Scultpture, 1957, Imogen Cunningham, 89.43
Ruth Asawa is an artist whose wire sculptures form a prominent part of the family gathering in this photograph. Curving shapes obscure some of the family faces that no doubt look on as the baby takes center stage and drinks to salute the situation.
Kwagitul Family Portrait, 20th Century, David Neel, 95.26
David Neel utilizes the principles of form and line to convey a family gathered in a circle of design. 
Bamako Family with Car #266, 1951-1952, Seydou Keita, 97.35
Seydou Keita did not record the names of his clients; hence this work is just titled Family with Car no.266. He owned two cars that were often requested to serve as backdrops for group portraits. In this assembly, three women are dressed in a line up of patterns, polka dots and wax prints. Their faces offer a study in the various ways to respond to a camera: knit eyebrows with reserve, stare it down with confidence or offer youthful eagerness to please. 

What Wax Print Cloth Can Say

Cloth ("eye of my rival"), n.d., African, 99.56.27
Cloth (with Felix Houphouet Boigny), African, 1993, 99.56.1
Cloth (shoes), n.d., African, 99.56.3
Cloth (cell phones), n.d., African, 99.56.4
Cloth (Marimar's Hat), n.d., African, 99.56.7
Cloth (hands), n.d., African, 99.56.23
Cloth ("the eyes see but the mouth is silent"), n.d., African, 99.56.37
Cloth ("when one tree takes all the wind, it breaks"), n.d., African, 99.56.40
Cloth (fingernails of the former First Lady), n.d., African, 99.56.46
African-style commemorative cloth:  John F. Kennedy, n.d., English, 96.3

A World Tour of Families

Families are a common subject in portraits, establishing reference points for what idyllic family life was meant to be. Yinka Shonibare created Nuclear Family with an American audience in mind, saying, "The nuclear family is just like the archetypal Midwest family… but they're Victorian.  A symbol of convention."  Indeed, the Victorian-era dress of the figures in Nuclear Family defines social class.  A boy in a sailor suit and his mother with a full crinoline profile establish their respectability from a distance.

Yinka Shonibare has also constructed families that are far from conventional.  In 1998 and 1999, he created a family of aliens, entitled Alien Obsessives, Mum, Dad and the Kids and in 2000, a family of astronauts going on holiday in space, entitled Space Walk.  His portrayal of fantasy families leads to a comparison of how families are represented across a multitude of cultures in works from SAM's collection.
Alien Obsessives, Mum, Dad, and the Kids, 1998, Yinka Shonibare, MBE
© Yinka Shonibare, MBE, courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London. Collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, restricted gift of Howard and Donna Stone. Photography © Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

Wax Print Cloth: An African and European Partnership

Wax print cloth derives from an evolving exchange between cultures and across continents.  The attraction to these prints began in the mid-nineteenth century, when West African soldiers who had been recruited by the Dutch started returning from Indonesia with wax batiks (fabric dyed using a wax-resistant technique) for their families.  The popularity of the cloth grew rapidly.  By the late 1800s, large quantities of the cloth were being sent to Africa from Dutch and English manufacturers.  In 1913, over 140 million yards of cloth were exported to West Africa from England alone.  Large amounts continued to be exported throughout the twentieth century.  With African independence movements in the 1960s, commercial factories were established in Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Benin, Togo, Niger and South Africa.
Alphabet cloth, n.d., African, 99.56.48


Yinka Shonibare, Artist, talks about Nuclear Family


Exhibition HistoryPhiladelphia, Pennsylvania, The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Secret Victorians: Contemporary Artists and a 19th Century Vision, Jan. 3 - May 6, 2001.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Art from Africa: Long Steps Never Broke a Back, Feb. 7 - May 19, 2002 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Oct. 2, 2004 - Jan. 2, 2005; Hartford, Connecticut, Wadsworth Atheneum, Feb. 12 - June 19, 2005; Cincinnati, Ohio, Cincinnati Art Museum, Oct. 8, 2005 - Jan. 1, 2006; Nashville, Tennessee, Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Jan. 27 - Apr. 30, 2006 [as African Art, African Voices: Long Steps Never Broke a Back]).

Salem, Massachusetts, Peabody Essex Museum, Family Ties, June 12- Sept. 21, 2003.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Anne Gerber Biennial: 2000 1/2: going forward looking back, May 5 - Aug. 4, 2000.
Published ReferencesIshikawa, Chiyo et al. "Seattle Art Museum Downtown." Seattle, WA: Seattle Art Museum, 2007, illus. p. 57

"Seattle Art Museum: Bridging Cultures." London: Scala Publishers Ltd. for the Seattle Art Museum, 2007, pp. 64-65

Seattle Art Museum respectfully acknowledges that we are on Indigenous land, the traditional territories of the Coast Salish people. We honor our ongoing connection to these communities past, present, and future.

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