One of my favorite Joy Labinjo works features two men standing side by side, both in suits, framed by orange into rectangular blue boxes and presented in the trappings of some sort of magic show. On the left, a white man stands with his arms crossed, frowning at the viewer, eyes squinted and brows deeply furrowed. On the right, a Black man in a bow-tie points to five playing cards arranged in his left hand. A big smile lights up his face in surprise. The work is titled Playing the Race Card. When I saw it, I literally spit out my drink.
Yes, we’re all a bit fatigued by 2020 topics, but unequivocally still reeling from the profound changes unleashed. For Labinjo, whose work was included in the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition while juggling multiple gallery shows, this awakened a renewed focus. A break-out star with captivating portraits of Black families from her own photo albums, she hit the emergency break, made a three-point turn, and let velocity do the rest.
Labinjo’s newer works are fucking bold. And I’d apologize for my language, but I mean it sincerely. The work is unflinching, as it confronts Britain’s racist history in contemporary moments of white bigotry. But it’s also quite cheeky. Labinjo is clever, utilizing humor within her work to address painful stories, in the hopes that the sting, as she says, “will sting a little less.” Lately, with commissions, one at the Brixton Underground and another on the Becontree Estate, her work finds a joyful harmony. The colorful, sculptural figures that are signature to her genius shimmer in soft memories, the ones placed floating right in the back of your eyelids.
There comes a point where every Black artist has the same thought process. Do I want my art to be defined by my identity? Can’t I just be an artist without categorization or definition? Why do these classifications exist in the first place? Who actually gets to play the “race card?”
If you look closely, the man in Playing the Race Card is holding a royal flush in a suit of hearts. I’ll let you decide what that means for yourself.
Shaquille Heath: I always like to ask, Black person to Black person, in this crazy year, how are you taking care of yourself and finding joy right now? And sorry to put a pun on your name…
Joy Labinjo: Ha ha! Umm…wow… taking care of myself… Well, I actually went on holiday last week. It was nice to be horizontal and feel relaxed. And I was thinking of starting massages again, but Covid’s back. Well, it never really went, but everyone has it now, so probably not. I'm just trying to enjoy the studio process and not saying yes to anything I don't want to do.
Yes! I love to hear that! That was my 2021 goal, which I failed at miserably; but I'm really going to hold tight to it in 2022.
It’s hard, it's hard. And you'll often be perceived as selfish, but yeah. Number one first.
I'm proud of you for making that commitment to yourself. Where did you go on holiday?
Egypt! So I had some fun, which is nice. And I didn't realize I hadn't been on holiday for such a long time. It's always taking a plane for work and you just call it a holiday, but it’s, like, no! That’s not a holiday!
Egypt feels actually like a really great dive into your work because, obviously, Egypt just has so much form and shape—which is such a distinct part of your work. I'm wondering what led you to construct your work in such a way?
Wow! That's a big question! With painting people the way they look, it’s kind of just instinctive. For a long time, I was looking at other artists and how they paint, and it took me a while to figure out how I paint. But now, whatever I paint still has that form and structure. And as I’ve gone on, I've enhanced it with special brushes. So I normally use angled brushes and black brushes, because I find it easier to paint how I see the figure with those brushes. But the collage effect—I mean, I say collage, basically just lifting things from different sources and fusing them together to make something new, for me, is just how my brain has always worked. Like at school with class projects, I'd use things I'd learned in history to help with another subject. And that's just how I've always processed things.
That actually leads into my next question, because I was wondering exactly that. Is the way you paint instinctively how you see the world around you?
Yeah, with links in different places. And yeah, lifting things from different sources. So right now in some work I'm lifting things from Gainsborough, Hogarth… Instagram and kind of just fusing them together. I feel like lots of people work like this, but they just don't necessarily recognize where everything comes from.
Do you have anything in particular in mind when you start, or does the vision kind of flow once you begin painting?
A bit of both, but normally, once I begin painting. Sometimes I feel like I need help in the studio, but because my work isn’t planned out before, I don't know how I'd bring someone else in. As soon as I get going, it's quite fast and hard to explain. It's just kind of easier for me if I just get on with it, and normally, one thing leads into another. But, for the body of work, I might have an idea or a subject matter. Then the actual composition of the paintings just kind of comes.
I know so many of your first works are sourced from your own family's photo albums. How many photo albums do you have?!
They’re done! Haha! I mean, there might be a couple more at home, but I was really running out, which is why I expanded to archives. Like archives of Black figures from the 1980s and beyond. I mean, if I still really wanted to do a family photo, I could use the albums my extended family has. But I just felt like… the act of painting was fun, but it was becoming formulaic and not that exciting to me anymore. However, it really was a gateway into learning how to paint figures and pattern. Learning composition and just finding out what I was interested in. It was a really good springboard.
Your work has evolved quite a bit from where you first began. One of my favorite pieces of yours is, “We Don't See Color” which you made in 2020. I imagine it was indicative of the year and the continued time that we are in. I wonder, was that particular piece a reflection of the spaces that you were in at that moment? Or did it just spiral off from reading Facebook comments for too long?
Both. It was a mixture of things. The phrase, “I don't see color,” I don't know about America, but it's something British people say.
Yes, Americans definitely say it!
Yeah, white people say this all the time. So it's something I've heard throughout my life. And reading Facebook comments inspired a lot of that body of work because… ha ha, I feel like in our actual lives, the people we're surrounded by are normally those who reflect our own views. But for me, Facebook is leftover people from so many different parts of my life, where I feel like I can get the truth of what the rest of the country is thinking. And the gaps of knowledge!
I had to write a post—well, I didn't have to—but I wrote a post explaining what “privilege” means. And then it was reflecting my general life and just the wider discussion at the time. Like listening to the radio, “I don't see color.” It was something that was being said all the time. And I think it's just ridiculous.
I totally know this experience myself. Can relate firsthand… You're a really funny artist! Like there's so much to your work within your titling that's quite playful, even when the content and the stories are really painful. For example, you have this work where a white family is watching protests on TV, right? And then the title of the work is Terrible, Isn't it? Girl, I was on Instagram just laughing, because that's exactly how it is.
Yeah! When I was thinking about these paintings and racism as a whole… Let me find the words… I mean, up until that point, I painted mainly Black figures. And I feel like so often when we talk about racism and race, we speak about our hurt, but we never really condemn white people or include them in the narrative. You know, racism doesn't really work without white people. So I really wanted to do something so white people could see themselves, and humor was my way of maybe making the sting… sting a little less. Ha ha!
I mean, that’s kind of you! One thing that pops in my head is you had this pivot from your earlier, beautiful familial pieces, to these pieces that really tackled racism and identity head on. I imagine that patrons of your work, particularly white patrons, were shocked by that pivot.
I didn’t hear anything! I mean, I think it's something they discuss amongst themselves. But when I was making that body of work—I mean, I don't make my work for the money, but obviously I do hope that they sell so that I can make more work and keep going. So, at that stage, I was really terrified about what the reception would be and whether they would sell. And I know that a lot of people who buy my work are white, which is why I wanted to make that work even more. Like it's not enough for you to maybe feel like you're absolving yourself by buying pretty paintings of Black people.
That's exactly the conversation that I had with a friend a couple months ago. You know, right now, and in the past couple of years, there’s been this emergence of, finally, Black artists getting their due. Like, it's phenomenal from one point, but it is also interesting because the majority—I imagine that the majority of buyers are white people. And there’s this feeling of, like, what does it do for you to purchase this Black portrait and put that in your very white home? And your work kind of forces them to confront that shit.
Yeah, it's really interesting… “Terrible, Isn't it?” hasn't sold. Ha ha! It was first hung in an art fair environment, which, I mean, I didn't think it was ever really necessarily going to do what it was supposed to do in that space. But it is on show now. And yeah, I'll be interested to know what viewers have made of it. Ha ha! I'm glad you find them funny!
I do! And I also find them intuitive and so smart. Speaking of, you just had your public commission open at the Underground Brixton, called Five More Minutes. Talk to me about how you decided to showcase this work, which is this really stunning painting of a Black hair salon.
Sure. So I started making two. One was similar to my early work, like a family in a living room, maybe set in the ’80s and ’90s. It was painted to look like a family but the people all came from different sources. I guess it was just a multi-generational Black family gathering in the living room. And then I was going to have posters on the wall of political figures from Brixton. I was thinking about the Brixton riots and the Windrush generation.
Then, on the other side of my studio, I started the salon piece because I always wanted to paint a salon, and I haven't seen a salon painted by a Black female artist. It was always something that I'd wanted to do, but I wasn't sure if it was powerful enough. So, at a certain point, I actually worked on the family scene a lot more than the salon scene. Then a friend came to the studio and pointed to the salon scene and said, “That's Brixton.” As I was painting the family scene, it just felt like something I’d done so many times before, so after my friends came, I went with the salon.
I really adore that piece. I mean, if Black salons in the UK are anything like Black salons in the US… again, the title, Five More Minutes gives me a laugh. I don't know, it has to be referring to your stylist running late when you get to the salon and they're still working on someone else's hair…
Yes! I was at the salon a couple of weeks ago to get braids done. And the lady called the hairdresser and said she'd be five minutes… she took 15 minutes to come. And then she said she's just “doing someone else's hair and will come back in 15 minutes.” An hour and a half later she came! And I was angry but… I still wanted her to do my hair. You know?
Ha ha! I grew up spending a lot of time on public transportation, and I never saw anything like your work. I can imagine the little kids who are using the Brixton Underground and are able to look up to see a scene that is so familiar to them. How incredible that must be! How does that make you feel?
Really happy! It was important to me to do something that gave back to my community in Brixton. Brixton has been through so much. Like gentrification, poverty, class divide. And yeah, these hairdressers are still standing through all of this. And they're such interesting places. It was always something definitely for Black women. I feel like Black men can resonate as well. But yeah, really important.
I'm very interested in hearing what's most influencing your work for 2022.
In one word, I will say history. In the sense that I'm researching and reading a lot, and looking to the past to make the work I’m making now. But it's still feeding on some of the things we've already discussed. So basically, when George Floyd was killed, and I was going through Facebook comments and just every day reading an article posted for bait, and I began to realize how little people know about British history, how Black people came to be in Britain, or even what Britain did to the rest of the world. So I'm looking at Olaudah Equiano and Ignatius Sancho. They helped to abolish slavery. But I was also just thinking about general education and the many rules in place that the general public isn’t privy to about what teachers are allowed to teach and how the curriculum is configured.
Basically, if I think back to history lessons, the things I remember learning about the most are World War One and World War Two. And from that angle, learning about how bad Germany was. We weren't taught any history where Britain did anything wrong. Slavery was kind of just brushed over. We learn about the Industrial Revolution that took place but not about how sugar, and herbs, and traded things, and the effect of the slave trade made it possible. History, they really chopped it up to show the best bits. So there are a lot of adults who just don’t know. I mean, racism is unfounded anyway, but I just feel like if they knew some of these things, they might perceive Black people, Asian people, people of color collectively, so differently. So I'm making work about that at the moment.
I just hope that the paintings serve as an introduction to these figures. Perhaps making people curious enough to go and look them up. I think that's what art can do. At least, that's what I'm trying to do.
Joy's show at Tiwani Contemporary in Lagos is no view through May 7, 2022.