Yinka Shonibare MBE RA, Cheeky Little Astronomer, 2013. Photo: RA/Steve White © Royal Academy of Arts, London

Object of the Month - July 2017


Yinka Shonibare MBA RA, Cheeky Little Astronomer, 2013

Cheeky Little Astronomer was commissioned for an exhibition at the Astronomer Royal's apartments in Flamsteed House, part of the Royal Observatory Greenwich. The house was built in 1675 for the Astronomer Royal and his family, a post established by King Charles II to instruct the monarch on astronomy. The figure was placed facing the window as if observing the atmosphere with his telescope. The equipment points to the important science that took place in the house and the child-like figure to the family activity lived alongside the astronomical instruments.

The sculpture is one of Shonibare's Planets in my Head series, in which the heads of figures have been replaced by globes. The figures at times reflect the standing poses of classical sculpture and elsewhere are captured in action: precariously balancing books, suspended on stilts, or toppling off a chair. Shonibare explains that he creates this juxtaposition because classical sculpture is iconic in Western high culture whereas the globe is universal and therefore more inclusive. The globe symbolises Shonibare's concerns with geographical and cultural identity and colonialism and post-colonialism. The Victorian style of the globe refers to a colonial period.

The clothes the figure wears are made from batik fabric, with brightly coloured patterns created from dying the fabric with a wax-resist. Many of the patterns have symbolic meaning so in some cultures the fabric could be 'read'. The fabric is traditionally made in Indonesia, produced in Holland and sold in West Africa, where it has become a symbol of the culture. Shonibare often uses the fabric as he is interested in how something that symbolises one culture can have a hidden, multicultural history. This represents his belief that cultural identity is enriched when hybrid. He explores the relationship between Africa and Europe and the boundaries between the two.

The chair the child crouches on symbolises the domestic setting of the Astronomer Royal's apartments, where the family's daily life took place alongside astronomical equipment. The child has clambered onto the chair to enable him to gaze into the sky. The chair grounds the sculpture, providing a contrast with the limitless space that is suggested by the telescope. Imagination and the immaterial are paired with the practicalities of daily life.

Shonibare's Wind Sculpture VI will be on display in the Royal Academy courtyard for the duration of the Summer Exhibition. Another of Shonibare's figures, Globe Head Ballerina can be found on the side of the Royal Opera House. The figure wears a tutu in brightly coloured, patterned fabric typical of Shonibare's work and spins on pointe within a giant snow globe. Shonibare's Ship in a Bottle, first shown on Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth between 2010 and 2012, is now permanently sited outside the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. It was introduced to the museum with the exhibition that Cheeky Little Astronomer was commissioned for.