Joy Labinjo: Our histories cling to us

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The title of Joy Labinjo’s current show at BALTIC centre, ‘Our histories cling to us’, comes from the Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and continues, ‘…We are shaped by where we come from.’ This is poignantly apt for an exhibition inspired by old family photo albums and the artist’s British-Nigerian heritage and identity.

At the age of just 25, Labinjo has already accrued a number of accolades for her work and striking style. After graduating with a BA in Fine Art from Newcastle University, she was awarded the Woon Foundation Art Prize and worked in residence at the Woon Tai Jee Studio, BALTIC 39, in 2017.

Walking into this impressive display at BALTIC for the first time, I was immediately hit by bright colour and a sense of collage. The patchwork nature of her slightly distorted figures is hugely effective and plays beautifully into different perspectives. From a few steps away, these familial images and strong black faces seem solid but true to life. However, up close, surrealism creeps in and Labinjo masterfully plays with light in a block-like way, casting each face and feature in its own unique palette. 

As a collection grounded by and bursting out of black culture, I was struck by Labinjo’s use of flesh tones. Their wide range, from black to brown to pink to white, felt conscious and deliberate – as if Labinjo were nodding to the transiency, inconsistency, and variety of skin colour; implying that the labels we lend to race are not as clear-cut or reductive as they might seem.

I don’t mean to suggest that her palette of colours implied a sense of the irrelevance of race; in fact, entirely the opposite. This is a celebratory show of Labinjo’s British-Nigerian heritage, family, culture and domestic life. Black identity is at its heart; but so is the complexity of belonging and the relationships between locations and generations.

Using family photographs as her source material, these vibrant canvases are punctuated by 90s fashion and traditional Nigerian fabrics and patterns. Labinjo is enlightening in her description of the collection as a kind of ‘family within themselves’, given the continuity of colours and motifs.

Listening to the artist in conversation, I was surprised by her pragmatism. She didn’t try to cast her intentions in a poetic or enigmatic light. Instead, she was upfront and realistic about being a young, up-and-coming artist in a digital age. Her more abstract faces are the product of blurrier photos, whereas a higher resolution lent itself to greater precision in the finished pieces. The plants and leaves scattered through her backdrops were sourced from Flickr and Instagram, and the final compositions were planned through Powerpoint before coming to life on her canvas.

The technique on these canvases is much more controlled and particular than the freedom and looseness of her work on paper. However, true to form, she doesn’t account this to anything more than canvases being more expensive, demanding a level of caution and care that isn’t otherwise necessary.

Similarly, when it came to colour choices, rather than be precious about her oranges and peaches, she works in these tones because the more ‘awkward colours’ are typically cheaper to get your hands on. She was able to be more creative and experimental with teal green paint on her brush instead of scarlet or black!

Labinjo’s refreshing, blunt realism is seen in the paintings themselves. These are images of real people, be it from a furniture catalogue or a pivotal Labinjo family moment. They come from patchwork, digital collages but somehow flow like highly orchestrated portraits.

Their charm is in their genuine origins and their power is in the strength of their subjects. Labinjo looks outwardly and inwardly in equal measure, and the results are captivating.

Joy Labinjo’s exhibition, ‘Our histories cling to us’, will be on display at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art until 23 February 2020.

Photo by Rob Harris © 2019 BALTIC.

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