Throughout its history the Barnes Foundation has been equal controversy and absolute gem. Albert Barnes, the iconoclast collector, made certain that he swam the opposite current of the art world, while maintaining an incredible and eclectic collection which is now worth over $25 billion dollars. He left no heirs, and his stringent will left very specific directions for the collection, all which the city has taken “into consideration”, and moved to an entirely new address in Philadelphia last year. The documentary “The Art of the Steal” holds a magnifying glass to this contentious situation if you’re curious.
My favorite aspect of the Barnes’ story is less the art, and more the fact that he hired my favorite philosopher Bertrand Russell out of obscurity (he was living practically penniless at the time in the Sierra Nevada Mountains). He hired him to become a professor at his foundation, as Barnes held education and knowledge in the highest regard. Several years later Barnes fired Russell because his wife made everyone call her “Lady Russell”. Oh my. Russell sued and drama ensued.
Despite the drama over his holdings and his interpersonal relations, Barnes’ intentions were of the utmost – putting a collection like his open to the public with the added emphasis on education was unparralled for an individual to do at that time. He was also interested in the Harlem Renaissance, and in 1925 wrote “Negro Art and America”, published in the Survey Graphic of Harlem.
Enter Yinka Shonibare – 12 of his pieces commissioned by the Barnes Foundation is up now through April 21. Yinka’s connection to the Barnes seems most obviously because he is of African descent and an accomplished artist. Who knows if Barnes would have actually commissioned him – perhaps this is spelled out in the will in some way shape or form?
The works Shonibare has done for the foundation are centered on the concept of education. Shonibare’s work plays with the ideas of colonialism in history, of illustrating a reversal of the oppressor, and of his own adventures in colonizing art history. Generally Shonibare takes works from European art history and subverts the narrative with headless characters wearing African textiles. The irony is that the African textiles he uses have actually been made in Holland and exported to Africa since the mid-19th century. All very clever.
Shonibare is not from a Harlem-esque background, instead he is British, from a family of wealthy Nigerian lawyers, and has had some of the best schooling in the arts London has to offer. Oh, and he was awarded the title MBE (The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) in 2004. Originally part of the YBA group, he’s ventured more independently, and has quite an impressive studio practice going in London. I think the closest that Shonibare is with Barnes is his insistence on having seemingly contrary ingredients coexist, and his recent studio projects centered on artists educating each other and the pubic. His studio just launched something called “Guest Projects” which promotes avant-garde African art from visual art and fashion to music and spoken word. Artists are invited share their work in a bimonthly supper club which is open to the public. This kind of open sharing of ideas and learning is something Barnes would most definitely approve of.
The Barnes Foundation
2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway
Philadelphia, PA 19130
300 North Latch’s Lane
Merion, PA 19066