Joy Labinjo is setting a new benchmark for Black representation in painting
With two solo shows under her belt at the age of 25, the British-Nigerian figurative painter’s star only continues to rise.
Photography Alexander Coggin
When we last spoke with South London-based painter Joy Labinjo in November 2018, Recollections, her debut solo show at Marylebone’s Tiwani Contemporary gallery had just opened. Just a quick glance at the then-23-year-old’s vibrant large scale figurative paintings of relatives and unknown faces from old family photo albums and it was clear that she was set for great things.
Just a year and a half on from then, and now 25, Joy has leapt past milestones for most artists her age. Last October brought with it the opening of her first major solo institutional show, Our histories cling to us at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary in Gateshead -- its title was borrowed from Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s 2012 Commonwealth Lecture, in which she proclaims: “Our histories cling to us. We are shaped by where we come from.”
Not even the nationwide lockdown we all entered shortly after the show closed has paused her trajectory -- just this June, she learned that she’d been offered a place on the MFA programme at Oxford University’s Ruskin School of Art. Before she heads to the dreaming spires, she’ll be taking part in a residency programme and solo show at The Breeder Gallery in Athens in September.
Looking at the paintings from her exhibition at BALTIC, any cynicism regarding the speed of her ascent is quickly laid to rest. In the freshness of its hues, the technical skill it demonstrates and its intellectual complexity, Joy’s work opens up a new horizon for the representation of Black figures and families in traditionally white-dominated gallery contexts.
Before she heads off to Athens next month, we caught up with Joy to learn more about her creative process, the essential ambiguities of her paintings, and the directions the events of the past few months have pushed her work in.
Just before lockdown, your solo show Our histories cling to us closed. That was quite a career milestone. And you studied close by in Newcastle. It was in your final year there that you began focusing on the subject matter that you currently deal with in your work, wasn’t it?
I had a really good time at Newcastle and it's a great city, but it was also quite an isolating experience. There weren’t many Black people around in general, let alone Black students. Studying Fine Art, there were even fewer. I think there were two People of Colour across four years, though I think it looks quite different now to when I was there.
It was the first time I'd studied Art History, but we were mainly taught about white male artists. Because I was so happy to be there, I didn't question it -- I just accepted that that was art history. It wasn't until I went to Vienna in my third year, and decided to write my dissertation on the Black British Arts Movement that everything came together.
I started looking into the work of Eddie Chambers and reading lots of books. Also when I was in Vienna I received outward racism. In Newcastle, people would just look, but in Austria, I felt it much more. Perhaps that experience just threw me into what I was learning about artists like Claudette Johnson and Sonia Boyce, it just reassured me that it's OK to make work about what you know, about your life and who you are.
How did it feel returning to the North East for your first institutional show?
I was really excited to be offered such an opportunity, and coming back to Newcastle was really special. But I wasn't sure how my work would be received, and I was actually quite apprehensive. When you have a show in London, you know that the audience will be of [people from different backgrounds and ethnicities]. But in Gateshead, I knew that it would be predominantly white. But I felt it was important to raise these questions, to focus on normalising the Black figure and the Black family and give them space to exist on a gallery wall. Also, there hadn't been a painting show at the Baltic for such a long time, and I was giving a nod to painting, to the human figure -- bringing it back to basics, in a way.
Speaking more about your work -- what first drew you towards figurative painting?
That was always my understanding of what art was growing up. Getting to university and learning about conceptual art and performance art kind of blew my mind. But I just find people really interesting, and I enjoy telling stories that way. It's something that we can all relate to, because we're all people. That’s actually what I find quite interesting in my work -- despite race, people can still pull out things that resonate with them. People just have to look past themselves, in the same way that, growing up, I quickly had to learn to look past not immediately seeing myself in art in order to gain something from it.
One of the things that stokes that sense of empathy is that your paintings give off the energy of family photographs. Though there may be culturally specific signifiers in the work, the feelings they elicit are so universal. How did you begin working with family photos?
I decided that I wanted to paint Black figures in my final year at university. But I only had a handful of Black friends, and everyone was studying and doing their own thing, and I also didn't want to do self-portraits. I was home for Christmas, and grabbed a photo album. I wasn't too sure what I was going to do with it, but when I started working, I ended up just lifting the figures and collaging things to create new images. Photographs were the starting point, but I was never aiming to replicate the photograph. It was about finding ways to create a new image, a new environment.
There’s an interesting balance between situations that seem very spontaneous and those that feel a little more conscious or posed. How do you set about selecting the figures you include in a painting?
It’s based on what they’re wearing, or their facial expressions, or just the event being photographed. They are from family photographs, but some are from before my time. I find it interesting looking at the lives my parents had before I was around. A lot of my work looks at human interaction -- I’m really interested in the relationships between the figures, and I don't always know exactly who it is that I'm painting. I guess I enjoy conjuring up stories in my head about what could have been happening, and who took the photograph.
There's also a real ambiguity of place -- there are colours, motifs or clothing that might offer hints, but nothing that anchors the work anywhere.
I painted my dad topless once, and someone said, ‘Oh, that must be in Nigeria.’ And I was like, people go around topless here all the time! But some of them are taken in Nigeria, others in the UK. I use that to question my British-Nigerian identity, the places kind of merge, I don't really feel that I belong to one without the other, and I'm not completely part of either.
You've recently started painting close friends and other people that you know. How did that develop from your focus on family?
I kind of felt like I'd exhausted working with family photos after three years. But photography was always going to be a part of my work, and I was thinking about how important it is for me to know or not know the figures. I was thinking about how to open up my practice, and friends and people close to me was the easiest way. I also wanted to open up the racial aspect of my work, too. Painting Black figures is an important part of my work, but it's not the most accurate representation of my actual life. I have friends who are of different races and ethnicities, so I felt that painting people that I know would be a great way to open that up. And it means a bit more if I know them -- race is really removed from the question.
As a Black creative of any discipline, it can be quite difficult to avoid getting embroiled in conversations around race. Of course, there's often a desire, and sometimes a need, to comment on it, but there are times when you don’t want that to be the focus.
Exactly, that's not all I do. I just want to be considered as a painter. And I knew that opening up who I paint would perhaps allow the work to be viewed differently.
That said, you’ve recently shifted the angle of your work in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. How have the events of the past few months affected your practice?
I'm really proud of the work that I was doing before and during lockdown and I think that they were some of my best paintings, technically speaking. However, I don’t think that now is necessarily the right time to show them. I also think it's important for Black artists to feel that they can do anything they like -- you don't just have to make work about your Blackness. But for me, I was just quite angry with how the media were portraying things, as if racism was something that happened just yesterday, or that we're protesting just because of George Floyd. The reality of the situation is much more nuanced.
I can only speak for myself with these paintings, but I definitely wanted to add my two cents. I kind of saw this work as a therapeutic way of dealing with things. They really focus on how in Britain, we don't ever really talk about how Britain came to be Britain. I think the fact that that isn't acknowledged is, in some ways, the root of the racism here, with people being able to turn a blind eye and not see colour. They're definitely more outwardly political than anything I've made before, but if it all goes tits up I'll be in uni for the next two years.