Image by B. Alter
The Fourth Plinth is the empty column in London's Trafalgar Square where a different artist is chosen to design a piece of art to occupy the spot for a year. The last one was controversial: Antony Gomley's One & Other featured a different person on the plinth every hour of every day for 100 days.
The new one by Yinka Shonibare is colourful and quirky and a bit of a mystery. Called Nelson's Ship in a Bottle, it is a replica of Admiral Lord Nelson's ship, the HMS Victory. This is the boat that defeated the French and Spanish at Trafalgar and represents a serious piece of English history. The artist says that it celebrates London's "immense ethnic wealth."
Image from propertyweek
The bottle is 15 feet long and almost 8 feet high. The opening is large enough for a few men to fit through to assemble the sailing ship. Once inside they could work on setting up the model's rigging. The cork is sealed with wax that has Shonibare's name and MBE award set into it.
The ships' 37 sails are made of colourful batik fabric. Batik is associated with African dress, but in fact it has a complicated history. In the 19th century, it was mass-produced by the Dutch, having been inspired by Indonesian batik designs. However they couldn't sell it, so they shipped if off to Africa where it became very popular. This fabric has been made in Manchester and sold in Brixton market.
Shonibare was born in England but is of Nigerian background. His work plays with the contradictions of empire and colonialism. The batik fabric is prominent in his work and is a metaphor for multi-culturalism to him. By defeating Napoleon, Nelson helped Britain to take control of the seas and so establish the British empire. Shonibare said he wanted to create a piece that "reflected specifically on the relationship between the birth of the British Empire and Britain's present-day multicultural context".
In celebration, Shonibare has created a batik pattern that can be downloaded and made into your own ship.