In Focus

Yinka Shonibare MBE, Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball)

HD film Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball), by Yinka Shonibare, is a visually resplendent and seductive union of dance, costume, sound, history, drama, light, and architecture. Loosely based on the opera of the same name by Giuseppe Verdi (which in turn was based on the play by Eugene Scribe who fancifully based his own play on the life of King Gustav III of Sweden [1746-1792]), Shonibare's film takes off from the final act of the Verdi opera. In the culmination of a comparatively simple opera plot, Gustav organizes a masked ball at the Royal Swedish Opera House, a building he conceived of and had built, where he knows assassins will be waiting. Gustav tempts fate and believes himself safe due to the masks that all will be wearing. This of course turns out not to be the case.

Just as Scribe and Verdi took major liberties with the facts of Gustav's life, adding a completely invented love story, turning run-of-the-mill political intrigue into an archetype of Romantic drama, Shonibare provocatively re-imagines the story as well. The protagonists of monarch and assassin are female rather than male, upsetting expectations of traditional gender and power roles. The 18th-century-derived court costumes that so beautifully swirl and dart throughout the film are made from Shonibare's signature brightly colored, intricately detailed cloth. Such cloth plays a major role in Shonibare's art, and he has dressed numerous figures in it for over a decade in static tableaux. The cloth was made in India as a Dutch imperial product sold to African markets, and has (ironically) come to signify Africa in the popular visual culture. In reality it was not made in Africa at all, pointing to a creation of identity with commercial origins. Perhaps most startlingly for a work based on an opera, there is no music, just the sounds the figures make as they dance and move through a stunning 18th-century Swedish building that was King Gustav's rural retreat.

The narrative is in two parts: the scenes leading up to the assassination, and then those same scenes played in reverse, only to start over again on a continuous loop. The glamorously evil conspirators appear after a series of breathtakingly sumptuous dances, and one of their members shoots Gustav; the crowd reacts, yet within a moment Gustav is seen rising again, and the film plays backwards, including the sound. Shonibare is following in the tradition of structuralist film makers of the 1960s and 70s, whose disruption of tradition and continuity was meant to bring awareness in viewers that film itself is entirely a construct, no matter how naturalistic it may seem. He can also be seen as alluding to Gustav's peculiar character trait (in the Verdi opera) that defies danger and recklessly continues; in Shonibare's version, Gustav gets to have his ball and fulfill his dramatic role, but his death is only temporary and the pleasure that we have witnessed starts in all over again.

Perhaps more pointedly Shonibare's work suggests that history always repeats itself, and that the colonial project of Europe is cyclical. Former subjects of the British Empire return to England to create a hybrid culture. Shonibare himself was born in London in 1962 but raised in Nigeria. He came back to London to attend school and remained there at a moment of intense artistic ferment in that city in the late 1980s and throughout the 90s. In dressing his characters in such recognizably contemporary "African" garb, Shonibare effectively is representing his own history as a person of African background making art within the highly ordered social structures of the former colonial power of England. Yet that colonial power's history is, for better or worse, also Shonibare's own, and he is a person deeply rooted in Western cultural forms of aesthetics and address, making such a work as this instinctively familiar yet somehow new.

Adapted from

Charles Wylie, DMA unpublished material, 2008.

Web Resources

  • YouTube
    Watch a clip of "Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball)