British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare has worked with a diverse group of people in Herefordshire to create a new textile commission for local charity Meadow Arts, inspired by the Hereford Mappa Mundi – the largest medieval world map to survive to the present day. This treasure, which depicts the world as it was known around the year 1300 with philosophical – if not geographical – accuracy, hangs in Hereford Cathedral’s historic Chained Library, and has now been reevaluated through Shonibare’s contemporary lens.

The project is admittedly further afield from what curator Anne de Charmant describes as the ‘usual art scene’ (the Cathedral is a short hop from the Welsh border). Yet it piqued the globally renowned artist’s interest thanks to the strange cast of characters depicted on the map. ‘In the current atmosphere, it is apt to celebrate these unknown outsiders,’ Shonibare explains.

Said characters – satyrs, giants and one-legged humanoids, inspired by myths and exaggerated descriptions of boundless travellers – have been reimagined, and sewn into the vivid Dutch wax fabrics Shonibare favours, in a series of vibrant textile hangings. Each are similar in size to the original map (around 1.50m by 1.3m); it’s as if a section has been taken, and zoomed in upon, revealing newly discovered detail and colour.

Creatures of the Mappa Mundi, by Yinka Shonibare, 2019

Creatures of the Mappa Mundi – Gigantes, 2018, by Yinka Shonibare. © The artist. Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London. Commission by Meadow Arts, 2019. Photography: Mark Blower

As well as reflecting ‘our contemporary concerns of fear of the stranger’, Shonibare believes that the depictions of ‘extinct creatures of legend’ serve as a reminder that ‘many more species may yet become extinct if we do not take care of our environment’. This embodies his belief that environmental protection and immigration are two of the most pressing concerns of our time.

The way in which the work was produced adds to the politically active atmosphere surrounding the project. Shonibare invited members of local community groups to contribute by sewing his designs onto the fabric, in a very practical way of addressing the themes addressed in the work. As well as physically working on the textiles, members of Hereford Courtyard’s Creative Ageing project; students from Hereford College of Arts; Rose Tinted Rags, charity for disabled people, Echo; and Hereford River Carnival facilitated discussions on immigration and the environment.

‘In the current xenophobic atmosphere, it is apt to celebrate unknown outsiders.’

As an Arts Council-supported regional organisation, Meadow Arts tries to bring the best of contemporary art out to the regions where there are very few opportunities. De Charmant, who is also director of Meadow Art, had wanted to work with Shonibare for some time. ‘Yinka responded with extraordinary generosity. His work with various community groups such as refugees, the disabled and the aged brought an extra dimension to the project, giving it a rare urgency and vibrancy. As a curator, I had never really thought of generosity as an artistic value, but it runs at the root of Shonibare’s work.’ §