Yinka Shonibare's 'Flying Machine Hanglider' (2012) from 'Invasion, Escape: Aliens Do It Right!' at Anna Schwartz Gallery. Courtesy the artist, Anna Schwartz Gallery & Stephen Friedman Gallery. Click for more photos

The truth is out there

Yinka Shonibare's 'Flying Machine Hanglider' (2012) from 'Invasion, Escape: Aliens Do It Right!' at Anna Schwartz Gallery. Courtesy the artist, Anna Schwartz Gallery & Stephen Friedman Gallery.

  • Yinka Shonibare's 'Flying Machine Hanglider' (2012) from 'Invasion, Escape: Aliens Do It Right!' at Anna Schwartz Gallery. Courtesy the artist, Anna Schwartz Gallery & Stephen Friedman Gallery.
  • Yinka Shonibare's 'Freestanding Alien' (2012) from 'Invasion, Escape: Aliens Do It Right!' at Anna Schwartz Gallery. Courtesy the artist, Anna Schwartz Gallery & Stephen Friedman Gallery.
  • Yinka Shonibare's 'Leisure Lady with ocelots' (2001).
  • Yinka Shonibare's 'Scramble for Africa' (2003).
  • Yinka Shonibare's 'Black Gold II' (2006).
  • Yinka Shonibare's 'The Age of Enlightenment - Adam Smith' (2008).
  • An artwork by Yinka Shonibare.
  • Yinka Shonibare with 'Nelson's Ship in a Bottle' (2010).

When Yinka Shonibare visited Sydney three years ago, the British-born, Nigerian-raised artist was surprised to read newspaper reports about the treatment of asylum seekers.

The acclaimed painter, sculptor, filmmaker and photographer, who was in town for a major mid-career survey exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, was taken aback by Australia's preoccupation with boat arrivals and the political panacea of mandatory detention.

What strikes me really is the lack of compassion.  

''I was quite surprised,'' he says. ''You might think Australia would be more sympathetic [to refugees], just because of its history.''

The invasion ... Yinka Shonibare.

"The whole idea of nationalism is relatively new" ... Yinka Shonibare. Photo: Charlotte Player

The Turner Prize-shortlisted artist's career has been devoted to questions of identity, authenticity and ethnic alienation. On the eve of his latest Sydney exhibition, at Anna Schwartz Gallery, he expresses concern for minorities around the world seeking a better life through migration, as the global financial crisis rears its head again and scapegoats are sought throughout Europe and beyond.

''What strikes me really is the lack of compassion; people thinking, 'I'm all right … I can't be bothered about you','' he says.

Born in London in 1962, Shonibare moved to Lagos with his family as a child. He enjoyed a privileged upbringing and when he returned to London as a 16-year-old, his parents were dismayed that one of their sons would want to be a lowly artist.

Shonibare is best known for his Nelson's Ship in a Bottle, which was on display until last year on Trafalgar Square's Fourth Plinth. Its 37 sails consisted of Indonesian-influenced fabric produced by a Dutch manufacturer for sale to Africa - but made in Manchester and bought by Shonibare at a Brixton market.

Was the sculpture a tacit reminder of the forces of globalisation?

''That's the point I'm trying to make about the purity that people are seeking,'' he says. ''The whole idea of nationalism is relatively new; we're all made up of all different influences, so it's

a fascist idea to be seeking the pure race … This [art] is dissolving the idea of the pure race.''

Shonibare's Sydney exhibition, Invasion, Escape: Aliens Do It Right!, features new paintings, drawings and sculptures, including two ''flying machines''.

The central work is a massive ''Alien Painting'', consisting of 75 round batik paintings studded with Lego men and Star Wars paraphernalia, playing again with notions of citizenship and nationalism.

Twenty-four drawings on paper deal specifically with Australia's migration history, incorporating passenger lists from England, accounts of the Tampa crisis and detention centre locations. The drawings are arranged in the shape of the Aboriginal flag.

Shonibare's artistic aims may sound earnest but his works can also be laugh-out-loud funny.

The exhibition features cartoony alien figures, and past works have included mannequins of well-to-do ladies with rifles drawn, depicted moments after they've blown one another's heads off.

Many other works over the years have given ''two fingers to the establishment''.

When Shonibare claims he can't tell a joke because he's a ''miserable git'', he's clearly joking.

But then, he is an artist of contradictions, on display when he was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 2005.

Shonibare is well aware of - indeed amused by - the irony of being raised in a former British colony and accepting an honour that includes British Empire in its title.

Moreover, he has adopted the MBE - which represents everything he satirises, deconstructs and critiques - as part of his professional name, quoting it liberally.

''That really was controversial,'' he says.

''People were saying, 'Well, because of the horrors of empire, you should refuse it'. It's almost a cliche to turn [the honour] down; quite a few people have turned it down.

''That does not actually raise the level of debate, because once you turn it down, the issue goes away.

''I also do find it ironic, given what my work is actually about … On the one hand, I want to fight against the establishment, but at the same time, I actually don't mind having what the establishment has.''

He is also quite fond of the royal family. His favourite? The Queen, because she's a little ''mysterious'', not to mention a stayer in the role.

Shonibare's London studio is set up as a hierarchy. He delegates to assistants because of his large-scale artistic ambitions, but also because of his own physical limitations. At age 19, he contracted transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord. He walks sometimes, but requires a wheelchair for long distances.

Having a disability does not hamper his artistic expression, he says.

''My studio has got much bigger, so even without the disability, I would have had to bring in more help.''

Invasion, Escape: Aliens Do It Right! is at Anna Schwartz Gallery at CarriageWorks from June 27 to August 11.