AOB Director’s Cultural Highlight of 2020

“Air Kid (Girl)” by Yinka Shonibare, Winter Exhibition, Royal Academy of Art, London October 2020

The last time I had been so totally captivated by a single work of art had been back in 2017. “The Caged Bird’s Song” was the enchanting tapestry conceived and designed by Turner prize-winning artist Chris Offili, handcrafted by a team of Scottish weavers and boldly presented as a one-exhibit show at London’s National Gallery. It was beautifully curated as a quasi-altarpiece with an aisle of informative supporting materials for us pilgrims, as we approached the shrine at the end of the long room. 

A work by another British artist of African heritage, Yinka Shonibare – although more of a physical and kinetic manifestation – similarly had me at once transfixed and transported, during what now seem to have been those heady days between Lockdown 1 and Lockdown 2. “Air Kid (Girl)” is a sculptural installation, featuring a child of non-specific ethnicity, seemingly running into a headwind, which has blown her black umbrella inside-out, behind her. This arresting centre-stage figure – in an Afrocentric room curated by Royal Academy veteran, Isaac Julien – touched me on more levels than I can name. She was clad – literally from head to toe – in Shonibare’s trademark, multicoloured ‘Dutch print’ fabric, a factory-manufactured derivative of Indonesian batik, beloved in my region of West Africa and the artist’s signature nod to the complexities of imperialism.…or colonialism…or is it now just globalisation? Indeed, the girl’s head was a globe…and without my knowing at the time that there existed a companion work, “Air Kid (Boy)“, I was immediately drawn by the resonance with another thematically similar piece that I had experienced in an unlikely gallery, far far away from London’s Piccadilly. 

The Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, USA (twinned with Murano Italy with which it shares an unlikely, stellar, glass-making heritage) is deep in what some refer to as the “Rust Belt”, but it is not untypical of certain art institutions in the Land of the Free (-market), in that it boasts a collection of which many a national gallery around the world might be proud. Apart from the wealth of works by great masters adorning the walls in generous clusters and the gobsmackingly incongruous section of an ancient monastery transposed from the South of France, imagine the shattering of my preconceptions when I stumbled across another Shonibare – “Homeless Child” – in such an alien environment! This was another figure (a boy) in motion, wearing a vibrant Dutch print outfit and carrying a precarious stack of battered, old-school, leather suitcases. The most exhilarating discovery, in spite of the pathos implied by the visual back-story of the piece – but back to London W1… 

Air Kid (Girl)” blew into my life as one of the first displays in the delayed, traditional “Summer Exhibition” at the Royal Academy. Those of us who had been blessed to survive the ravages of COVID-19, had managed to find a few diversions over the passing months and were becoming accustomed to a “new abnormal”. However, the nights had been closing in, the clocks would be ‘falling back’ the following weekend and there was a brittle chill in the air. Worse still, the received wisdom was that a second Lockdown (“circuit-breaker”) was imminent…like another wind from the north presaging a bitter blast of winter. We all needed some comfort, some inspiration perhaps…something to show us that it would be alright in the end. Perhaps we really could make it through…? And there she was! “Air Kid (Girl)” was the very incarnation of drive, determination, resilience and exuberance. On that day…at that time, she filled me with hope and renewed energy to face whatever might be ahead, as if leading us into an invisible battle under her international colours.

Months later, I regularly revisit my photograph of this miraculous model of dynamism – she’s a genuine, psychological booster, as I await the call-up for my first anti-Covid jab. “The Kid” is more than ‘alright’; she is the embodiment of life itself, showing us the way to freedom and to a brighter, healthier future.