Yinka Shonibare CBE: Suspended States review – gorgeously recognisable, but is that enough?

<span>Decolonised Structures, 2022-23 by Yinka Shonibare, featuring Winston Churchill, Queen Victoria, Lord Kitchener and co, at the Serpentine Gallery.</span><span>Photograph: Guy Bell/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Decolonised Structures, 2022-23 by Yinka Shonibare, featuring Winston Churchill, Queen Victoria, Lord Kitchener and co, at the Serpentine Gallery.Photograph: Guy Bell/Rex/Shutterstock

There is a terrific skit on Henry VIII in Yinka Shonibare’s new show at the Serpentine Gallery. It plays on the familiar outline of the incredible hulk in his feathered hat. His enormous garments are collaged out of printed woodgrain and African batik in brilliant-coloured patterns. His jowls are replaced with a stylised African mask.

Snippets of the FTSE index are incorporated here and there, beneath the single word King on a deep red expanse. But the image exceeds its obvious message about money, empire, bloodshed, plunder. For the sight gag works. Henry, in all his pomp, looks properly outraged, standing there with a face like thunder – forced to wear someone else’s mask.

This is Shonibare’s first major exhibition in a London gallery in more than 20 years. But nothing – and I mean nothing – has changed. Now 61, he still applies contemporary west African prints to public figures of the past (as well as historic monuments and objects) to get his trademark dissonance. He still relies upon the decorative wax fabrics, inspired by Indonesian batik and exported to west Africa by the Dutch during the 19th century, as a metaphor for the entangled relationships between Africa and the rest of the world.

The geopolitics of our world are so horrifically complex and murderous they require more than bright generalisations

Queen Victoria, Clive of India, Lord Kitchener, Winston Churchill: cast in fibreglass, slightly smaller than life, each statue is painted in these gorgeously recognisable patterns. The idea is that there should be a momentary swither, where you are not quite sure who you are looking at, or perhaps quite when. But it never works. Churchill looks exactly like himself, or at least like Ivor Roberts-Jones’s awful statue, all coat and no character, in Parliament Square. Victoria in any form is, alas, indelible.

There are two huge variations in the Serpentine show. In pitch darkness, in the central rotunda, 17 small buildings appear on low tables. Each is painted black, and each has its special familiarity: scale models of the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens or the United Nations headquarters in New York, of Chiswick Women’s Refuge and the Cathedral of Saint Elijah in Aleppo.

Inside each is a small beam of light, revealing walls covered in west African prints. At first, this is extremely beautiful: a gallery of tiny, glowing interiors, radiant and hopeful in the night. But here comes the dissonance. Each building is supposedly a place of sanctuary, but each has been in reality attacked – no longer a place of safety.

You may argue that the bombardment of Saint Elijah during the Syrian civil war has very little to do with Africa or colonialism. Or that what might be apt for a replica of the Peter Mott House in New Jersey, where the African American minister Rev Mott once gave refuge to escaped slaves, is much less so for Notre-Dame in Paris. The fabric – the idea – just doesn’t have this stretch.

It is the same with the Unstructured Icons series, which runs all the way from the print of Henry VIII to a muddled pastiche of Velázquez’s Pope Innocent X. The formula doesn’t fit. Where Shonibare hits so perfectly with the king, he loses it completely with pope, queen and aristocrat.

The largest work here, The War Library is a vast, immersive library of more than 5,000 volumes, each bound in the signature fabric, the title of a conflict or peace treaty embossed in gold on the spines. The aesthetic is stunning and disturbing all at once: a city of many-coloured books, a world of never-ending wars.

To read is to learn – of the Tecumseh rebellion, or the Fulani war in Nigeria and Cameroon in the 19th century; of the Nabataean expeditions into southern Arabia 2,000 years ago. But you will need to look them all up yourself. For though every volume is a stimulus to knowledge, it is also an empty prop.

You can’t take these books from the shelf, still less open or read them. And the possibility that each binding is in some way specific to each conflict (or treaty: Shonibare stresses the interconnection between war and law) proves a disappointing illusion. The Finnish civil war of 1918, between the non-socialist Whites and the socialist Reds, has the same binding as the biblical genocides.

Some books are untitled, ready for the next atrocity. This is a library without end; but in more than one sense. Shonibare has already produced The American Library, The British Library and The African Library (citing prominent immigrants and intellectuals). Repetition is his unvarying method.

Shonibare is much loved as a generous and moral figure. His Guest Artists Space Foundation in Lagos (and its London predecessor), offering free studio space to rising artists, are rightly honoured here. His Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, with its batik sails, was so popular that the public helped buy it for the National Maritime Museum.

The artist is against colonialism, racism, imperialism, war. That is what the fabric says, and what the catalogues and captions tell us. But what more, what else? The geopolitics of our world right now are so horrifically complex and murderous they require more than bright generalisations.

Related: Yinka Shonibare: ‘You don’t want the next generation to be full of hate’

The aesthetic is, of course, beautifully distinct. You know where you are with a Shonibare; you know what it means and who made it. (Not literally: disabled by a virus long ago, Shonibare employs a superlative creative team.) The signature west African fabric has been going on for so many years, too, it must be hard to shuck off. And sure enough, Shonibare never does; the whole of this retrospective depends upon it. The question is whether it speaks of far-reaching colonialism more than Famous Artist these days. And the answer is surely not.

Laura Cumming saw a preview of Suspended States. As part of the curatorial process, the work titled King was later replaced by Unstructured Icons – Power, 2018.

Yinka Shonibare CBE: Suspended States is at the Serpentine South Gallery, London, until 1 September