Lifelong Devotion to Public Art: Yinka Shonibare Sculpture to Debut in NYC on Way to Davidson

Yinka Shonibare and Pat Rodgers have never met. He grew up in Nigeria and lives in London. She and her late husband, B.D., spent their life together in North Carolina.

Shonibare and Rodgers, however, both turn big ideas into reality. They soon will do that together through a sculpture placed, first, in New York City’s Central Park by the Public Art Fund and, then, on Davidson College’s campus.

Shonibare flourishes in the arts, with vivid sculptures installed in places such as London’s Trafalgar Square and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. Rodgers thrives amid the engineering of the construction industry, captaining the business that B.D. Rodgers built, now one of the largest contractors in the southeast, and building landmark structures across the Carolinas.

Their worlds do overlap. Shonibare must weave engineering into his works, and Pat Rodgers carries on B.D.’s devotion to public art.

Their efforts will converge on March 6, when Shonibare’s latest work, “Wind Sculpture (SG) I,” debuts in Central Park, at the Doris C. Freedman Plaza, at 60th Street and 5th Avenue. The 23-foot-tall sculpture, with Shonibare’s hallmark, Dutch wax fabric and brilliant colors, will remain until fall. Then, through Rodgers’s support, the piece, with its cross-cultural themes and upwardly expanding swirl of turquoise, red and burnt orange, will move to Davidson for permanent installation in front of the new E. Craig Wall Jr. Academic Center.

“I hope the work does two things,” Shonibare said in a Skype interview from London. “I hope purely on the visual impact level that somebody who doesn’t quite understand the complexity of ideas within the work should have an immediate response, an immediate reaction. The work is fluid. It has movement in it. Then, if they want to know more, they can get to the point of identity and history and all of those very important issues for our time.”

Art should engage people on many levels, he said.

“I want children to get from this as much as grown ups and people who want to explore the very serious issues in the work,” Shonibare said. “I also hope the work will start a conversation about how we relate to each other regardless of our ethnic background.”

The fabric in his new work and many others is described as “African,” but Shonibare traces its crossbred background. The Dutch fabrics originally were manufactured in Europe for sale in Indonesia and, after rejected there, in Africa. Their blended history reflects his view of culture–an artificial construct.

“That mixture is exactly what makes Shonibare’s work completely in keeping with a liberal arts context. That is, it’s not about one thing. It’s about a mixture of things,” said Cort Savage, professor of art at Davidson. “The way that he questions our cultural heritage is beautifully gentle, but it’s there.”

Open Minds, Public Art

Yinka Shonibare
Yinka Shonibare with Wind Sculpture (SG) I (in-process), 2018 Hand-painted fiberglass resin cast – Courtesy of the artist and James Cohan, New York (Photo: Jonathan Bassett, Courtesy of Public Art Fund, NY)

An ocean away from Shonibare, Rodgers shares the aim of art as dialogue spark.

“Placing [the sculpture] in front of the Wall Center, where conversation is always being stimulated, and on the Davidson campus, just brings more of a vibrancy to the building, to the campus,” she said. “It encourages people to have conversation about the art whether they like it or don’t like it. B.D. would always say that the art he bought was the art he loved, that he liked. Sometimes he could see in it what I certainly couldn’t see, and maybe other people as well, but it would make him feel good when he found a piece he liked.”

The Charlotte home Pat Rodgers shared with B.D. and the headquarters of Rodgers Builders, the company he built and where she is president and CEO, display captivating pieces of sculpture brought home from trips across the country and around the globe.

“B.D. had such a love for public art,” she said. “He had a great appreciation for sculpture, mostly because of the materials sculptors tend to use. He was always fascinated that they would know and understand what the materials could and couldn’t do, and I think that came from his engineering background. We have friends who say B.D. was an engineer, but in his heart he was probably more of an architect.”

B.D. Rodgers would talk with an artist, such as a clockmaker in his shop, about their work and quickly develop a bond, Pat Rodgers said.

“They would automatically realize he really understood what they were doing,” she said. “So I’m sorry he is not here to see this [sculpture], but I think he would understand it and appreciate it.”

The Wall Center, which Rodgers Builders constructed, not only serves as premier real estate on campus for Shonibare’s work, but connects strikingly to the ideas behind the piece and to Rodgers’s motivation in bringing it to campus. The center’s cross-pollination of physical and social sciences, and humanities underscores Davidson’s transdisciplinary emphasis in reimagining the liberal arts experience. Shonibare applauded that approach and highlighted the symmetry with his work.

“All of my own practice is interdisciplinary,” Shonibare said. “Leonardo da Vinci wasn’t just an artist. He was an architect, an engineer, a scientist. I think that it’s very important that we take a broad-minded approach to learning so that we don’t just close people off from other possibilities. My own way of thinking, my own practice, which you know is influenced by literature, science, fashion, color, art, all of these things are embraced in my practice. I very much like my work being in that kind of context.”

The Wall Center’s overlapping emphases include a variety of public art, interspersed among collaborative spaces, laboratories, classrooms and offices. The mix of students studying there reflect a different type of diversity–the college’s efforts to recruit students from all backgrounds so that they learn from each other’s different perspectives. That environment resonated with Shonibare in discussing his work.

“When you have people with a multiplicity of ideas, diverse people, you are actually able – in research, in the arts–you are able to develop things that are much more interesting,” he said. “For an academic institution it is most crucial to bring different talents to the college to develop…a range of perspectives. That’s not a moral point. That’s just logical.”

Savage underscored that Shonibare’s perspective includes that of an artist with a disability, a spinal paralysis on one side resulting from contracting transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord, as a teenager.

“What’s beautifully inspiring is the scale of [this piece] and the idea that, for me, we can see that kind of ambition from someone who absolutely does not see themselves as limited in what they can accomplish,” Savage said, “and that’s a really positive and strong message to students.”

B.D. Rodgers’s mother wanted him to go to Davidson and become a Presbyterian minister, but he graduated from N.C. State University as an engineer. He maintained, though, a love of Davidson, Pat Rodgers said, and what it stands for, its role in history and in the Reformed Tradition, as a place where conversation and dialogue across divides are encouraged.

“So often, even if there are great differences, Davidson somehow has always found a way to find some harmony in the differences that people have, and that they share,” Pat Rodgers said. “B.D. wasn’t interested in sitting around talking to people who thought just like he did. He wanted to talk with people who didn’t think like he did. He had a different perspective and outlook on life and what it meant to be someone who cared about giving back, and giving back in the communities that you could make an impact on.”