Yinka Shonibare CBE (RA), has the kind of career most aspiring artists dream of. His accomplishments include exhibiting at the Venice Biennial, being shortlisted for the 2004 Turner Prize, and receiving an honorary doctorate from the Royal College of Arts in 2013. Distinguished patron of the Shape Open, our annual exhibition where both disabled and non-disabled artists join together to explore a disability related theme, Yinka certainly has a lifetime of wisdom to share. He recently met with 2014's winner Carly Jayne to offer career advice and a cup of tea. 

Did you find out anything interesting / unexpected / inspirational about his journey as an artist?

Meeting Yinka was perhaps akin to meeting the Dali Lama or a high ranking mischievous monk (other gurus are available). He has a very unique energy that is a forcefield of calm. That, combined with an air of humour that is intoxicating, makes supping tea with him an incredible place to be.

The thing that was most unexpected about Yinka was how wonderfully generous he was to talk to. He pauses before he answers a question and you can see he is really trying to make the answer important, and give you everything he has to offer in that moment.

The most inspirational thing was hearing a first hand account of how he has never allowed his (dis)ability to stop him in any area of his life. Instead he sees this as just another opportunity, just another lens to look at the world from. The strong sense of identity and optimism is pulled through his work - it's in every stitch for everyone to see, I didn’t need to meet him to see that. But meeting him has allowed another layer to be projected onto the work, Yinka does not have to try to instil these qualities existentially, he is that at the very core.

Yinka has proactively promoted his own work throughout his career. Did you pick up any tips on how to promote your work?

It can be very hard for artists to understand just how the backstage art world revolves. Tirelessly doing show after show without any sense of career progression can become disheartening. It is easy in this situation to fantasise at length about exchanging your overalls for a McDonalds apron and begin working your way up to becoming a professional flipper. At least you get gold stars there, right? Yinka didn’t make any qualms about the reality of this, but he did insist that perseverance and good old fashioned cheek is the only way to get representation. For anyone perpetually clicking 'send' on emails containing your portfolio … cease and desist. Put on more shows and invite more people. 

What was the most valuable advice he gave you?

He told me that finding a gallerist was like dating … you aren’t always going to be right for one another.

How will you apply what you’ve learned from your chat with Yinka to your practice?

I support my practice financially, and in many other ways, including teaching Fine Art Sculpture at Brighton University. I have lost count of how many times I’ve brought up my chat with Yinka in tutorials with my current-but-soon-to-be-unleashed-upon-the-world third years. The advice they mostly cherish is knowing that everything could be ok. That there are people out there making work and eating actual food. I have and will continue to spread his knowledge and encourage active self-promotion. In terms of my own practice, it has given me more energy to seek out new shows and broaden my exhibition rap-sheet. 

What advice can you give to aspiring artists? Apply for everything that suits your practice.

NEVER compromise your work. Always prioritise documentation. Take part in as many group shows as humanly possible. Challenge yourself. Don’t even look at the McApron.

What are you working on next? 

I am currently winding down with teaching for the year, which means my studio practice will ramp up accordingly. I have some new shows on the horizon and I am currently working on a series that will hopefully be exhibited before the end of the year.

Thanks so much to Shape for accepting my work for the Shape Open. The organisation has been a continued pleasure to be involved with. A special thanks to Tony [Tony Heaton OBE, Shape Chief Executive] and Ben [Ben Fredericks, Arts Development Coordinator] who arranged and accompanied me on my visit to Yinka's studio. For anyone considering showing with Shape: what are you waiting for?

Banner Image: 'Without My Walls' by Carly Jayne Inset
Inset Image: 'Strangers' by Carly Jayne, which won the 2014 Shape Open 
For more information about the Shape Open click here.