Yinka Shonibare, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters
Who has dreamt that someday we’ll see the truth & let go of old ideologies that cause suffering in this world? Who has dreamt of the demise of ancient biases? Of course, this will never happen until we face the monsters that dwell inside each one of us.
In the Enlightenment people began to question ecclesiastical authority. Intellectuals were compelled to critique royal hierarchies. People also sought to bring rationality & reason to our understanding of the world, the heavens & mankind. The dream was a world where all are equal.
In the waning years of the Enlightenment (the 1790’s) Francisco Goya (1746-1828) published a series of aquatinted etchings: Los Caprichios. The prints were a wide-ranging vision of man’s vice, foibles & weaknesses. Goya’s moralistic vision is salty, dirtier & closer to humanity than the English Hogarth or Rowlandson. He is said to be the first modernist. Goya depicted man’s real demons, which are also man’s hidden truths.
Within the Caprichios are a few prints known as the Sueños (sleep & dreams). The thematic device of dreams & dreaming allowed Goya a certain critical freedom & less official scrutiny. The most famous of the Sueños Caprichos is: El Sueño de la Razón Produce Monstruos (The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, ca.1797). This print (in several versions) should’ve been a frontispiece for the Caprichios. The print was not so much satirical, as it was an allegory of reason &/or truth.
About 211 years later (2008) the British born Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare (1962- ) was inspired by Goya’s well-known print and decided to quote, re-use, appropriate, re-stage the famous etching.
Shonibare kept most of Goya’s image the same. The owls in Goya’s original (that symbolize foolishness, not wisdom), the bats (that symbolize stupidity) & the lynx (that signifies a clear vision of the truth) are all delightfully brought to life in Shonibare’s re-make. The sleeping man does change ethnicity in Shonibare’s five C-prints. The man in Goya’s print is the artist himself. Shonibare clad his man in Goya’s costume, except that the outfit is made from Shonibare’s favorite fabric: Dutch wax cotton. This fabric is used in most of Shonibare’s artistic output. The fabric is a multicultural metaphor. The artist is quick to reveal that the fabric’s connection to Africa is intentional, but it also has more of a global (& colonial) past. The fabric is sold in London by the Dutch & it is based on Indonesian designs, and then exported to West Africa & elsewhere.
In the original where Goya had written that the sleep of reason produces monsters, Shonibare instead asks in French (underscoring the multicultural motif), “Does the sleep of reason produce monsters in America (& Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia)?” Each of the 5 C-prints represent a continent (South America must be considered one with North America).
Shonibare’s tableaux-vivants refresh Goya’s allegory by enlarging & re-contextualizing the question of reason (or the absence thereof). He seeks to re-inhabit history with questions of how it is viewed & how it can be re-framed or re-argued. The Enlightenment sought to critique the prevailing canon. Shonibare wants us to question our own age & its complicated sense of reason with a more global multi-cultural vision. Goya would’ve been proud.
Aurelio Madrid was born in 1968. He lives and works in Denver, Colorado. He keeps the blog, luctor et emergo.