Skip to content
BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Open Access May 13, 2019

Engaging Black European Spaces and Postcolonial Dialogues through Public Art: Yinka Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle

  • Heather Shirey EMAIL logo
From the journal Open Cultural Studies


Yinka Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, installed on the Fourth Plinth of London’s Trafalgar Square from May 24, 2010, to January 30, 2012, temporarily transformed a space dominated by the 19th-century monumental sculpture of Lord Horatio Nelson, Britain’s most famous naval hero. When installed in Trafalgar Square, Shonibare’s model ship in a bottle, with its sails made of factory-printed textiles associated with West African and African-European identities, contrasted dramatically with the bronze and stone that otherwise demarcate traditional sculpture. Shonibare’s sculpture served to activate public space by way of its references to global identities and African diasporic culture. Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship, this paper argues, inserted a black diasporic perspective into Trafalgar Square, offering a conspicuous challenge to the normative power that defines social and political space in Great Britain. The installation in Trafalgar Square was only temporary, however, and the work was later moved to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, where it is on permanent display. This paper provides an investigation of the deeper historical references Shonibare made to the emergence of transnational identities in the 19th century and the continued negotiation of these identities today by considering the installation of Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle in relation to both sites.

Works Cited

Art Fund. “Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle by Yinka Shonibare, MBE.” Art Fund, Accessed 30 July 2018.Search in Google Scholar

Chambers, Eddie. Black Artists in British Art. A History From 1950 to the Present. I.B. Tauris & Co., 2014.10.5040/9780755603343Search in Google Scholar

Cheetham, Mark A. Artwriting, Nation, and Cosmopolitanism in Britain. 2012.Search in Google Scholar

Enwezor, Okwui. “The Joke Is on You: The Work of Yinka Shonibare.” Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art, vol. 1997, no. 6-7, 1997, pp. 10-11.Search in Google Scholar

Enzewor, Okwui, and Chika Okeke-Agulu. Contemporary African Art Since 1980. Damiani, 2009.Search in Google Scholar

Ezard, John, Empire Show Arouses Pride and Prejudice.” The Guardian, 1999. Accessed 30 July 2018.Search in Google Scholar

Gott, Suzanne et al. African-Print Fashion Now! Fowler Museum At UCLA, 2017.Search in Google Scholar

Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Identity and Diaspora.” Diaspora and Visual Culture: Representing Africans And Jews, edited by Nicholas Mirzoeff, Routledge, 2000, pp. 2133, Accessed 31 July 2018.Search in Google Scholar

Harper, Glenn and Twylene Moyer. Conversations on Sculpture. Isc Press, 2007.Search in Google Scholar

Hassan, Salah and Iftikhar Dadi. Unpacking Europe: Towards a Critical Reading. Nai Publishers, 2001.Search in Google Scholar

Hobbs, Robert. “Yinka Shonibare MBE: The Politics of Representation.” Yinka Shonibare MBE, edited by Rachel et al. Prestel, 2008, pp. 28-31.Search in Google Scholar

Kelso, Paul. “Mayor Attacks Generals in Battle of Trafalgar Square.” The Guardian, 2018, Accessed 26 July 2018.Search in Google Scholar

Kennedy, Maev. “Message in a Big Bottle—Appeal to Save Fourth Plinth HMS Victory.” The Guardian, Accessed 30 July 2018.Search in Google Scholar

Kent, Rachel et al. Yinka Shonibare MBE. Prestel, 2008.Search in Google Scholar

Kwon, Miwon. One Place after Another. MIT Press, 2004.Search in Google Scholar

Lavery, Brian, and Simon Stephens. Ship Models Their Purpose and Development From 1650 to the Present. Zwemmer, 1995.Search in Google Scholar

Littlewood, Kevin, and Beverley Butler. Of Ships and Stars: Maritime Heritage and the Founding of The National Maritime Museum Greenwich. The Athlone Press and National Maritime Museum, 1998.Search in Google Scholar

Malvern, Sue. “The Fourth Plinth or the Vicissitudes of Public Sculpture.” Display and Displacement: Sculpture and the Pedestal from Renaissance to Post-Modern, Alexandra Gerstein, the Courtauld Institute of Art Research Forum and Paul Holberton Publishing, 2007, pp. 130-151, Accessed 29 July 2018.Search in Google Scholar

Olusoga, David. Black and British: A Forgotten History. Pan Macmillan, 2016.Search in Google Scholar

Picton, John. “What to Wear in West Africa: Textile Design, Dress, and Self-Representation.” Black Style, edited by Carol Tulloch, V&A Publications, 2004, pp. 22-47.Search in Google Scholar

Shonibare, Yinka et al. Yinka Shonibare MBE. Western Michigan University, 2010.10.1215/10757163-2010-27-122Search in Google Scholar

Stammers, Michael. “Ships n Bottles and Their Origins in the Late Nineteenth Century.” The Mariner’s Mirror, vol. 99, no. 1, 2013, pp. 92-94. Informa UK Limited, doi:10.1080/00253359.2013.767629. Accessed 23 July 2018.10.1080/00253359.2013.767629.Accessed232018Search in Google Scholar

Vasconcellos, Isabelle de, and Grayson Perry. Fourth Plinth: How London Created the Smallest Sculpture Park in the World. Art Books Publishing, 2016.Search in Google Scholar

Ward-Jackson, Phillip. “’Is the Pedestal to be the Capital Part of it?’: Pictorialism and the Pedestal of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square.” Display and Displacement: Sculpture and the Pedestal from Renaissance to Post-Modern, Alexandra Gerstein, Courtauld Institute of Art Research Forum in Association with Paul Holberton Publishing, 2007, pp. 98-113.Search in Google Scholar

Received: 2018-07-31
Accepted: 2018-12-09
Published Online: 2019-05-13
Published in Print: 2019-01-01

© 2019 Heather Shirey, published by De Gruyter Open

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Public License.

Downloaded on 26.3.2023 from
Scroll Up Arrow