In the summer of 2017, the Museum commissioned a sculpture from internationally renowned artist Yinka Shonibare MBE. Girl Balancing Knowledge III is the latest piece from the artist’s Balancing Knowledge series, which addresses questions of identity in a complex, globalized society. The sculpture was unveiled on March 10, 2018, a momentous event that culminated in a public discussion between the artist and Museum president and CEO David Mickenberg in the Museum’s Auxiliary Auditorium. The work will be on display next starting in the fall of 2019.

Watch an interview with Yinka Shonibare MBE, produced by PBS39.

Born in London to Nigerian parents, Shonibare lived between two cultures, which inspired him to create art that examines systems of power, the legacy of colonization, and cultural ambiguity. When Shonibare studied art as a young man in London, one of his tutors asked why he didn’t make “African” art. This question inspired Shonibare to develop his signature body of work, which interrogates issues of cultural authenticity and oppression with both wit and brutal honesty.

Shonibare’s Balancing Knowledge sculptures feature life-size child mannequins carrying teetering piles of books. Their dynamic poses suggest the challenges of obtaining an education but also evoke energetic play and childish joy in learning and discovery. He deliberately gives the mannequins in all of his works light brown skin in order to create racial ambiguity.

The Balancing Knowledge children wear clothing designed after late nineteenth century Western fashions; however, this clothing is unexpectedly made from fabric with brilliant colors and wild patterns that refer to complicated colonial histories and question cultural authenticity.

This sculpture has strong relevance to both fine art works and textiles in the Museum collection. With its exploration of hybrid identity and focus on power and colonial oppression, it relates to other contemporary works. Shonibare’s art can also be linked to themes found throughout the American collection, such as the depiction of childhood and education. When juxtaposed with Colonial Revival works, it invites discussion of the myths they create about national identity.

With its ability to inspire powerful, complex and rewarding dialogue, Shonibare’s Girl Balancing Knowledge III is an extraordinary acquisition and represents a significant step for the Museum in its objective of valuing diversity, practicing inclusion and inviting visitors to grow through the transformative experience of art.

The commissioning of the sculpture was made possible by the Priscilla Payne Hurd Endowment Fund.