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Yinka Shonibare’s Birdcage Kid (Boy)

A sculpture of history and hope
Kristen Windmuller-Luna, Curator of African Art
June 1, 2024
Birdcage Kid (Boy), 2023. Yinka Shonibare CBE RA (British, Nigerian, b. 1962). 2023.158

A boy steps forward, carrying birdcages and wearing one as a backpack. His pose projects strength and determination. Colorful birds perch atop these enclosures or stretch their wings to fly away. Connecting to Cleveland history, the sculpture reflects both the challenges faced by and the upward momentum of members of Africa’s diaspora. Yinka Shonibare CBE RA, one of today’s most celebrated contemporary artists, created Birdcage Kid (Boy) in 2023. The London-born British-Nigerian artist spent his early years in Lagos, Nigeria, before receiving his master of fine arts degree from Goldsmiths, University of London in 1991. Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) and Royal Academician (RA) are just some of his achievements. An interdisciplinary artist, he is best known for captivating figures with potent historical and social meaning.

father and his two boys dressed fancy
Portrait of the Photographer and His Sons, c. 1880–1900. W. J. Sawyer (Nigerian, active c. 1883–1910?). Photographic print on aristotype paper; 18.3 x 12.5 cm. Photo © Musée du Quai Branly—Jacques Chirac, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

Characterized by vibrant fabrics fashioned into Victorian-style attire, Shonibare’s sculptures comment on colonialism and globalization. Whether called “wax print,” “African print,” “Ankara,” or “Dutch wax,” these prints are linked with Africa because of their contemporary popularity across many of its countries. However, these textiles have a complex, global history. In the 1840s, European firms mass-produced versions of handmade Javanese batik for Asian markets. When they didn’t sell there, manufacturers turned to West African markets, adding visual references to local fabrics. Enslaved people on American plantations picked and processed some of the cotton those factories printed on. 

Shonibare uses fabrics made by renowned Dutch manufacturer Vlisco. While Vlisco numbers its patterns, African female market sellers informally name them. Consequently, both seller and wearer can reinterpret the pattern’s meaning. Here, Shonibare chose two patterns: on the coat, the bird exits its cage, while on the trousers, a bird soars above a radiant sun. The first pattern is nicknamed “You leave, I leave.” First sold in 1983 in Togo and Côte d’Ivoire, the pattern was worn by newlywed women to indicate that they would not restrain themselves if their husbands were unfaithful. Here, the pattern takes on a different emancipatory meaning when worn by a young boy.

gold and red cloth with leaf pattern
Wearing Cloth, 1800s. Indonesia, Java. Cotton and dye (batik process); 204.4 x 106.1 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of J. H. Wade, 1918.38

The figure’s Afro-Victorian attire highlights colonial history’s complexity. The boy wears a tailored short-pants suit with teal stockings and brown leather boots. When you visit the work at the CMA, look closely to see the carefully made fabric-covered buttons and jacket lining. This ensemble evokes the Victorian-style dress two boys wear in an image by Nigerian photographer W. J. Sawyer. The Victorian era takes its name from Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837 to 1901, when Britain’s African colonial holdings were largest. This included Nigeria, which Britain colonized from 1849 until 1960, just two years before Shonibare’s birth. As colonizer, Britain occupied Nigeria’s territory and exercised political and economic control. That control extended to trade, which brought “wax print” fabric and new fashions to Nigeria.

The artist’s use of Victorian-style clothing—which Nigerians adopted both by force and by choice—is both cultural appropriation of and commentary on British culture. It also speaks to connections between American slavery and European colonialism in Africa, visualizing bonds between Black individuals across continents and time. While the figure’s subject matter addresses Black individuals’ stories, its skin color is the signature caramel tone Shonibare uses to keep race indeterminate. This inherent ambiguity speaks to the socially constructed nature of race, and its evolution over time, especially in the United States.

Inspiring the work’s title, six replicas of endangered birds departing antique cages are a highlight. Through them, Shonibare extends his interests to systemic causes of denied civil liberties experienced by members of the African diaspora. This includes the colonial roots of American slavery and contemporary mass incarceration. Here, the artist’s concerns intertwine with environmental considerations. Red, orange, and yellow patches on the boy’s globe-head suggest climate change’s influence on both birds and humans; we feel this impact during Cleveland’s hotter days and see it in the often iceless Lake Erie. Yet, the boy’s youth symbolizes hope amid challenges.

Birdcage Kid (Boy) went on view in the African art galleries (108) in early February, celebrating Shonibare’s self-identification as an African artist. There, the boy in Afro-Victorian garb can connect with the 19th- and early 20th-century African artwork that might have populated his world.  The sculpture’s themes of liberty and environmental conservation speak powerfully to visitors, encouraging them to think about blended heritage, climate change, and their own triumphant journeys forward in the face of adversities. We hope it becomes a cherished favorite in our collection.