Following the second workshop in the programme, led by frieze deputy editor Amy Sherlock, three of the participants chose to write about British-Nigerian painter Joy Labinjo’s exhibition at Baltic, ‘Our histories cling to us’, her first major solo show. Here’s Joanna Byrne’s 600-word take.
Review #5: Joy Labinjo at Baltic
Where is home, when we find ourselves caught between two worlds? Exploring what it means to belong is central to ‘Our histories cling to us’ at Baltic, Joy Labinjo’s first major solo show. A young painter of British-Nigerian heritage, Labinjo draws upon her own diasporic identity and personal history. Her starting point is photographs of family, friends and ‘unknowns’ captured in the UK, Nigeria and places in-between.
Walking amongst the paintings, set out over two rooms of the gallery, feels like wandering through scenes from a colourful family scrapbook, recomposed as large-scale, graphic canvases. Like the family album – or social media feed – which compresses space and time via photographic montage, Labinjo’s vibrant compositions flatten out decades, time zones, geographic and spatial locations.
The lo-fi aesthetics of the snapshot are reflected in the jarring colour combinations and off-kilter compositions of Come Play With Us? and Everything Will Be Alright (both 2019). Bodies are cut off at awkward angles, while the stark flash of a disposable camera freezes faces, distorts colours and muddies backgrounds. The graphic patterning, striped folds and colour-blocked shadows of garments and fabrics flow into Labinjo’s rendering of her subjects. Hovering between the figurative and the abstract, faces are mapped in flattened daubs of pure colour; a myriad of skin tones that in Maya Angelou’s words, “confuse, bemuse, delight…”
In works such as The Final Portrait, Family Portrait and Jane and Mary Jane (all 2019), Labinjo invites us into the performative, more harmonious space of the formal studio photograph, often used by families to communicate togetherness, commemorate special occasions or rites of passage. Family Portrait (2019) depicts a mother wearing a loose crimson dress and patterned traditional headcovering, her young child sat in her lap, while the father, in a dark suit, stands behind them protectively. The Final Portrait – of whom, we wonder? – appears to be constructed from several snapshots; cut-out figures of all ages perch atop mid-century furniture cribbed from adverts and mail-order catalogues. This is painting as montage.
Recurrent motifs of lush green tropical plants, bright stencilled leaves and boldly patterned fabrics – visual shorthand for ‘Africa’ – are culled from Instagram and pasted into Labinjo’s multi-layered compositions. Allusions to doors and windows – often rendered in solid rectangles of unadulterated colour – alert us to spaces beyond the here-and-now of the assemblage, a desire that exceeds the boundaries of the canvas. Is this a visualisation of homesickness, of nostalgia – “painful homecoming” – that might permeate experiences of diaspora? While Labinjo cites artists such as Sonia Boyce, Lubaina Himid and Claudette Johnson as influences on her representations of black subjects, comparisons may also be drawn with Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s tactile and sensual multi-layered paintings of diasporic subjects in domestic spaces.
Labinjo’s painting-as-montage occupies a transitional space, the somewhere ‘in-between’ space of an emerging artistic practice. Her vibrant canvases commingle spaces and places, past and present, the ‘real’ and the virtual; converging, almost merging into a unified whole. This sense of being in-between, Stuart Hall says, is an important part of the experience of diasporic identities: not just “being”, but “becoming”. Always in the process of becoming.
‘Joy Labinjo: Our histories cling to us’ continues at BALTIC until 23 February 2020
Joy Labinjo, ‘Our histories cling to us’, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art 2019. Photo: Rob Harris © 2019 BALTIC