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Yinka Shonibare unveils new sculpture at Allentown Art Museum
GIRL. Photo: Marco Calderon.

ALLENTOWN, PA.- Yinka Shonibare is influential; his work is thought provoking; the materials he uses in his sculpture are colorful, whimsical and powerful. The Allentown Art Museum provided the venue and the opportunity to see his work and hear him discuss his art and his global perspective during a special limited exhibition this weekend of the Museum’s acquisition Girl Balancing Knowledge III.

“I deal with delicate political issues in the world,” the artist said Saturday during a one-hour conversation with David Mickenberg, the Museum’s Priscilla Payne Hurd President and CEO. “The most important aspect of this work is feminist. It’s also challenging a lot of assumptions within our society, and it’s also about power and the role of young women within our society,” Shonibare said. “It’s also dangerous if we don’t educate young women. It’s dangerous also for all of our futures and our economy, because ultimately, if you educate young women you educate the society.”

Shonibare’s visit to Allentown is unique, and the acquisition of the sculpture is a significant step for the Museum in its objective of valuing diversity, practicing inclusion and inviting visitors to grow through the transformative experience of art. Shonibare’s Girl Balancing Knowledge III is a life-size child mannequin carrying a teetering pile of books. Her dynamic pose suggests the challenges of obtaining an education, but also evokes energetic play and childish joy in learning and discovery. The head is a globe, what Shonibare calls the best metaphor for “universal and inclusive.”

“Yinka came from London to go to two institutions. The first was the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Central Park, and the second was here,” Mickenberg said. “He went from speaking at the Met about the Central Park commission and came to Allentown to talk about the commission of the work of art here. In getting an artist of his stature to spend this much time with the audience, to engage the community with his work, for him to spend the amount of time and energy it takes for him to be here is extraordinary and we are deeply grateful for it,” Mickenberg said.

The Museum was open for extended hours Saturday to accommodate visitors from Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York, where Shonibare’s reputation is significant. Students at Lehigh University study Shonibare’s work in a class on contemporary global art taught by Susan Kart, assistant professor of art history and Africana studies. “We spent the last week talking about Yinka Shonibare in part because he was here, but I always include him in that class,” Professor Kart said Saturday. “I’m really excited, and this is great for the Museum to have this piece of art. Having someone like Shonibare in this collection signals a whole shift for Allentown towards the contemporary, towards the more international, towards the more globally and culturally diverse so that you’ve got more than one perspective on view in the Museum. I can’t wait until it goes on permanent view. I hope it stays right where it is. That’s fantastic that it’s kind of in the middle of all of these historic paintings, because it does have a historical conversation to have with us about what we need to take in our current present from what’s past,” she said.

The sculpture was on view in Trexler Gallery for two days, March 11-12, and will be in storage until the completion of the planned reinstallation of the Museum’s permanent collection, which is expected to be in 2019.

Purchase of the sculpture was made possible by the Priscilla Payne Hurd Endowment Fund. This seminal acquisition is key for the Museum’s goal to engage the public with art that highlights varied cultural narratives and sparks discussion about contemporary issues like race and identity, issues that are compelling and thought provoking.

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