Of Victorian Dandies and Ladies of Leisure

by Claudia Dias on June 27, 2009

Yinka Shonibare MBE current exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum is multi-layered and referenced to the Victorian imperialism of Africa. The British/Nigerian artist works within a web of historical and socio-political symbols, but for me, his references to dandyism in “Diary of a Victorian Dandy”, “Dorian Gray” and its female aristocratic counterpart “Leisure Lady (with Ocelots)” and “The Swing” describe the essence of Shonibare’s work.


“What I like most about the concept of the dandy, is that it is the masquerade par excellence. It is a disguise where you appear to be a member of the aristocracy but you are always on the outside…The dandy’s practice takes something you are supposed to be outside of and re-appropriates it for a different use: to be subversive and challenge the establishment.” Shonibare told interviewer Anthony Downey in 2004.  ”Diary of a Victorian Dandy” is a suite of five large-scale photographs showing the dandy’s  activities throughout the course of a day and featuring Shonibare and a supporting cast in Victorian costume.

Charles Baudelaire defined a dandy as one who elevates aesthetics to a living religion, for whom excessive delight in clothes and material elegance are no more than the symbol of the aristocratic superiority of his mind. A dandy aspirant must have no profession other than elegance … no other status, but that of cultivating the idea of beauty in their own persons … The dandy must aspire to be sublime without interruption; he must live and sleep before a mirror.“ 

The British Victorian Era was at that time at its height of wealth, power and arrogance.  It was time of overbearing excess and holocausts in an undeclared class and race war by the ruling classes. Subject peoples had fewer rights and were the foreign markets that provided cash for the national exchequer.  

Rococo painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard, who  portrayed the eighteenth-century culture of excess inspired Shonibare’s 3-dimensional ‘tableau vivant’ The Swing (2001), a respond to Fragonard’s 1767 painting of the same name, depicting a privileged young woman at leisure, pursuing love and lavishing the material comforts of her upper-class wealth.

“To be in a position to engage in leisure pursuits, you need spare time and money buys you spare time. Whilst the leisure pursuit might look frivolous (..) my depiction of it is a way of engaging in that power.”  Leisure Lady (with Ocelots) features a “lady of leisure” promenading ostentatiously with her  three leashed wild cats depicting 18th century fashionability, exoticism, and the subordination of nature.

The headless mannequins are a playful reference to the beheading of the aristocracy during the French Revolution and the redistribution of power and land. “It amused me to explore the possibility of bringing back the guillotine in the late 1990s …. for use on the historical icons of power and deference.” He has also noted that the absence of heads in his sculptures removes direct connotations of race or individual identity.

Shonibare was born in 1962 in the UK to Nigerian parents, spent his childhood in Lagos and relocated with 17 to London, where he currently lives and works. In 2005 Shonibare was  awarded a Member of the Order of the British Empire, MBE, a distinction he uses despite and because of  its irony.


Yinka Shonibare MBE @ The Brooklyn Museum (June 26t – Sept. 20, 2009)

‘Diary of a Victorian Dandy: 17.00 hours / 03.00 hours’ 1998 , ‘Dorian Gray (scene 2 / 10)’ 2001, ‘Leisure Lady (with Ocelots)’ 2001, ‘The Swing’ 2001. Photographs courtesy of artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery and James Cohan Gallery

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