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Artists and 'Otherness' - comparing Shonibare and Mendieta

Artists and 'Otherness' - comparing Shonibare and Mendieta

In the first image, on the top left, we see the famous Yinka Shonibare piece, ‘How to blow up two heads at once (Ladies),’ that was created in 2006. The second image, to the bottom right, is Ana Mendieta’s ‘Flowers on Body,’ also known as her ‘First Siluete,’ made in 1973. Despite the obvious differences between the pieces, both have a lot to express in terms of ‘otherness.’

     Shonibare’s work consists of two life-sized mannequins, adorned in luridly coloured Victorian styled dresses made from Dutch Wax printed cotton, complete with leather boots, holding actual revolvers. Initially, these two figures seem equal; both in the same stance, with a pistol aimed at the other’s head, and both dressed in finery. However, upon closer inspection, we can see that one dress is in much brighter colours, such as yellows and blues that fit rather ill together, unlike the darker, more sophisticated hues of the purples and greens on the other dress. It is likely therefore that there is a class difference between the women. This is further backed up by the fact that such fabrics were mass produced and sent to Indonesia, subsequently failing to reach popularity, and as such were sent to East Africa wherein the became very popular. Just as in Victorian England, cotton prints were only for the upper classes, until cheaper imitations came around enabling the lower classes to afford them too. As such, there could be tensions between the class system that are being demonstrated, albeit in a subtle, yet clever way; at first notice, we cannot tell the difference. Shonibare herself said, ‘I like the fact that the fabrics have a multi-layered history… the point I’m trying to make is that things are not always what they seem.’


 By contrast, Mendieta’s work is a colour photo, wherein she herself is the body, laying nude beneath an arrangement of white flowers in a pre-Hispanic tomb. The colours are very simple; the tomb surrounding being grey and sombre, and the rest being organic; the green and white, as though the flowers were in fact growing from her ‘dead’ body. This strongly reflects a sense of ‘otherness,’ symbolising regeneration rather than morbidity and despair. This is unlike Shonibare’s work, wherein the two women have in fact got no heads; have they ‘lost’ them, in their conflict, or did they even have heads beforehand? Perhaps this is Shonibare’s way of depicting the damaging attitudes women can have towards other women.

     Mendieta’s body also does not seem to have a head; it is obscured by the flowers. However, this makes the work more universal; could the body not be anyone’s? The body seems to be ‘peaceful,’ and conjoined with nature, perhaps trying to remind us of the importance of the world away from the ‘urban’ context in which we inhabit.

     The sharp lines of the arms and mirrored poses of Shonibare’s mannequins almost makes the piece look geometrical, and almost makes the piece seem ‘unnatural,’ like a set-up, as though it shouldn’t be happening, which is maybe a reflection of Shonibare’s thoughts of how women treat other women. The lack of faces creates the profundity of the piece; it makes it very hard to establish information about the women. This to me conveys the idea of someone never truly knowing what a stranger is going through, and as such, we should be wary of judging.

      Mendieta’s work is equally profound; the lack of face also creates a sense of unease and the ‘unnatural,’ making you unsure as to whether the image is ‘positive’ or ‘negative.’ The white of the flowers seems to suggest an air of innocence, of purity, because of its associations with virginity and youth, whereas the colours of the dyed fabrics in Shonibare’s work only serves to create conflict and division between the two women.

      Overall, I think both art works convey a sense of otherness, especially due to the ambiguity created by there being no heads, and therefore no facial expressions. Also, the materials chosen in both are crucial to conveying the messages of the artists; the organic or man-made materials, and in particular, the colours. Both pieces at first seem simple, but upon closer inspection, use the idea of ‘otherness’ to convey powerful ideas.




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