JToday Labinjo is one of those lucky people who describes their childhood as “idyllic”. Born in 1994, she grew up playing in the streets of Dagenham, running between her family’s three-bedroom semi-detached and her grandparents’ house a few streets down to drink cups of tea and dip biscuits into them until they were soggy. There were birthday parties on Saturdays and church on Sundays. Around the age of 10 she gained a reverence for her community of her, taking it upon herself to organize the family photographs of her. Carefully she laid them out in albums, labeling the dates and adding the names of people she could remember. Her initial work by Ella as a figurative painter consisted of reinterpretations of these beloved moments.
Although these images were honoring her love of family, her mother and father (a teacher and biochemist respectively) took a while to come round to the idea of her pursuing art as a career. But the last few years have seen Labinjo’s star rise. She completed a residence in Greece, has exhibited her work at the Royal Academy and in galleries from Newcastle upon Tyne to Lagos. Moreover, as you walk down the stairs of Brixton tube station you are greeted by a huge mural celebrating the buzz of Black hair salons that she was commissioned to paint by Art on the Underground.
Labinjo’s work centers Black characters either from her own life or ones that she feels connected to in some way. Her time de ella at university in Newcastle “cemented” her need de ella to “celebrate Blackness” given how white the population was. She describes her time there as “isolating” due to other students making “rogue racist comments” in her presence. “I didn’t feel like I belonged there. I think that’s what took me back to drawing family photographs.” She would then incorporate other images that inspired her; anything as random as a pattern she might have seen while going about her daily life of her (“In one painting, the wallpaper was inspired by a Topshop skirt”).
Labinjo’s practice has evolved to bridge the personal and the political. Recently, she displayed a number of bold nude self-portraits at the Tiwani Contemporary gallery in Lagos, Nigeria, which she says was a “bit of a fuck you” to the way her body feels policed when she’s in her family’s country of origin. “I know it’s for my own protection that people will tell me to cover up, but it just feels very patriarchal; the nudes were a chance for me to show myself on my own terms.” She had initially been nervous that her grandmother de ella would not want to attend but ella was pleasantly surprised when she turned up in a gele (Nigerian traditional dress) with her friends.
Labinjo’s next exhibition, Ode to Olaudah Equiano,, extends her love of exploring the nuance and beauty of the Black experience by lifting the lid on Black British figures who played a significant role in the 18th-century abolitionist movement. The exhibition features large portraits of these mostly forgotten names, reimagining their lives with the same vibrancy she brings to the explorations of her family life de ella.
Forgotten histories: four works by Joy Labinjo
Ignatius Sancho, 2022
“After reading David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History, a story I enjoyed was that of Ignatius Sancho. He was a slave who bought his freedom from him and became the first Black man to vote in Britain. A plaque in his memory of him was unveiled in Greenwich Park in 2007. ”
Terra Firma, 2022
“This was the first painting in the nude series but I wasn’t sure about it. I came to the studio one evening and photographed myself sat on the bench and went from there. Art has the power to see the beauty where we might not. Sometimes I would step back and think: ‘Joy, you’re kind of beautiful.’”
Olaudah Equiano, 2022
“I originally thought the man in the red jacket was Equiano, as that’s what Penguin used for the cover of its reproduction of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. However, it’s not him. I found images of an engraving that was in the original, and this image was inspired by that.”
Ode to Olaudah Equiano, 2022
“I decided to make some work that could correct the notion that Black people arrived in Britain with the Windrush. They were present before, in part due to colonization and the slave trade. Olaudah Equiano (who I originally thought this picture was of) was enslaved but managed to buy his freedom from him. His powerful memoir of him helped to abolish slavery.”
Ode to Olaudah Equiano is at Chapter Arts CenterCardiff, to 3 July.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism