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Yinka Shonibare: ‘The argument that things are safer at the British Museum is a little bit shaky now’

As the British-Nigerian artist’s new Serpentine Gallery show opens he talks about the long arm of colonialism, why art needs to engage, and why the Benin Bronzes should be sent home.

It is, in some ways, the ultimate accolade. Put up a piece of public art in London and if the cabbies like it, you know you’ve struck gold. Yinka Shonibare knows how it feels to tap that seam.

His Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, which sat on the Fourth Plinth from 2010 to 2012, when it moved to its permanent home outside the National Maritime Museum, remains one of the most loved of the temporary exhibits, and a taxi driver favourite, he tells me when we meet at his studio in a former warehouse in Hackney.

“And then they’ll say, so, how did you do it then? And I’ll say to them, I’d have to kill you if I told you.” He laughs. He thinks people love the sculpture – a huge glass bottle containing a detailed replica of Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory, with sails made from Shonibare’s signature Dutch wax fabric – because “there’s a playful side to it. Of course it’s political. But they enjoy it and they want to talk about it.”