Over the past five years a distinct stylistic approach has developed in the work of a lot of young artists based in the North. Encompassing everything from video to ceramics, aesthetically these artworks have a strong relationship to post-internet art and could be categorised by their use of humour and obscure pop-culture references. While it has been great to see a strong regional identity develop, the dominance of this particular kind of work has at times felt a little insular. In this landscape Joy Labinjo’s work, and its unapologetically personal motivation, is incredibly refreshing.
Labinjo is a young British woman of Nigerian descent, and her work is a complex exploration of race, identity and culture. The show comprises a series of paintings, some on canvas and some on paper, depicting people of colour, mainly women, caught mid-conversation. The slightly awkward stances and expressions of the figures, as if they are caught off-guard, are reminiscent of family photographs and they are painted with lively, expressive brushstrokes on flat colourful backgrounds.
The first painting depicts three women floating in a sea of orange, the only contextual detail being an old fashioned white oven with a hood, confirming a domestic setting. The two women on the left wear matching yellow outfits and appear deep in conversation, whilst the figure to the right looks blankly off into the distance. Her empty hand held out as though holding an imaginary cup, she looks lost in thought, dressed in an almost puritan outfit of a black dress with a white collar. She seems cut off from the other two, who appear comfortable and at ease. Her conservative dress contrasts with the other two women’s outfits, suggesting she is grappling with her identity in a way they are not.
Elsewhere, a painting on canvas depicts a sparsely leaved fig tree, a bright red tiled floor, a brown checked sofa. One woman looks out at us with a serious, heavy expression whilst the other smiles. Again, the vibrant colours and patterns clash with the dowdy brown of the clothes and sofa, the aesthetic contrast a meeting of two distinct cultures.
One of the paintings, depicting a mother cradling two laughing toddlers, radiates pure joy and warmth. The colours are celebratory, but as with all family photographs there is a tinge of sadness at the fleeting nature of these moments. It would be easy to slip into nostalgia when working with photographs, but despite the expressive brush strokes there is almost a forensic examination of the subject matter, a questioning and probing eye exploring the artist’s identity and heritage. If the personal is political, the artist is using her own experiences and those of her family to explore questions of identity and race on a wider scale.
The execution of the black skin tones in these paintings is expressive and jubilant, celebrating histories and cultures that are often overlooked in the predominantly white arena of western figurative painting. Much like Francis Bacon or Lucian Freud, the artist tries to make human experience tangible through paint, but there is no existential angst here.
With so many political, social and environmental reasons to feel negative about the future, it is easy to see understand the sardonic mood that has pervaded in the work of young northern artists recently. This show, and its candid exploration of one family’s history is an antidote to that, and hopefully marks a turn away from the insularity of recent years and a return to a more sincere, optimistic approach to art.
Mid-conversation, Gallery North, Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne, 25 September – 25 October 2018.
Laura Rushton is an artist, writer and producer based in Newcastle upon Tyne.