On Saturday, the British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare visited the Allentown Art Museum to unveil a new sculpture commissioned by the museum.
The sculptor, based in London, is on a tour of the Northeast. He also just completed a sculpture for New York’s Central Park.
Shonibare often makes sculptures using boldly patterned fabrics often seen in African clothes. The batik textiles actually originate in Indonesia and are distributed by Dutch textile companies.
“A lot of people know those fabrics as African textiles, but my interest in the fabrics is based on the idea that we are culturally interconnected,” said Shonibare.
At the invitation of the Allentown Art Museum, he created “Girl Balancing Knowledge III”, featuring a mannequin wearing a dress of batik fabric as she holds up a teetering tower of books. It’s part of his investigation of his own mixed nationalities and the cultural effects of a globalized economy.
He has made versions of “Girl Balancing Knowledge” at least twice before. The girl has a globe in place of her head, erasing her ethnicity and driving home the global nature of the work.
The piece was removed after its temporary weekend display to be placed in storage while a new exhibition of the Allentown Art Museum’s permanent collection is designed. It is expected to be reinstalled in 2020.
At the preview event Saturday, Shonibare said the most important aspect of “Girl Balancing Knowledge” is feminism, that to keep girls uneducated is dangerous.
“It’s dangerous also for all of our futures and our economy, because, ultimately, if you educate young women, you educate society,” he said.
According to UNESCO, 263 million children — most of them girls — around the world are not going to school. Often, girls cannot get an education due to cultural traditions or military conflict.
Shonibare’s sculpture displays its serious intent with a touch of playfulness. The figure is on one foot with arms outspread, as though ice skating, with the stack of books in suspended collapse. They are caught in a moment of falling.
“I like that tension in my sculptural work. I like things to be animated, so that audiences can experience the work in a more interesting way,” said Shonibare.
The Allentown Art Museum is in the midst of planning a major expansion, backed by a new strategic plan to create programming directly in area neighborhoods and schools.