Using the works The Swing (After Fragonard) (2001) by Yinka Shonibare and Artifact Piece (1987) by James Luna, reflect on how artists of minority communities speak back to art history with their work.

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Yinka Shonibare’s The Swing (After Fragonard) and James Luna’s Artifact Piece comment on art history and museum practices through museum installations. Shonibare, who is British-Nigerian, approaches Western art through a parody of a famous French painting, while Luna, who was both Native American and Mexican American, addresses the exhibition practices that objectified indigenous bodies.

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Shonibare, a British artist of Nigerian descent, deliberately references Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s 1767 painting Les hazards heureux de l’escarpolette (1767), known in English as The Swing. Shonibare created a gallery installation rather than a painting. Fragonard’s painting suggests the frivolous indulgences of upper-class society, as a laughing young woman in a pink dress has kicked off her shoe. In Shonibare’s piece, the dark-skinned mannequin has no head, while her outfit is made of African-themed print fabric. The relationships among the female body, swing, tree, and shoe are preserved, but the perspective also alludes to other historical features of Fragonard’s era and the years to come. Notably, the Dutch wax print African-themed fabric and the mannequin’s dark skin suggest the troubling legacies of colonialism and slavery. The headless state suggests the guillotined subjects of the French revolution and subsequent anti-colonial struggles.

James Luna (1950–2018), an artist of Payómkawichum (Luiseño), Ipai, and Mexican heritage, had a long-term association with the La Jolla Indian Reservation in California. In “Artifact Piece,” by making himself the subject of an installation, originally at the San Diego Museum of Man, he drew attention to subject–object relationships between Native peoples and museums. The work speaks to traditional museums’ and galleries’ long-standing practices of displaying the living and dead bodies of non-white peoples. In this work, Luna located himself within a gallery; clothed in a loincloth, he lay supine and unmoving within a glass vitrine, surrounded by personal objects in additional cases.

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