Joy Labinjo, “Talking into the night” (2019) (courtesy the artist and Tiwani Contemporary)

NEWCASTLE, UK — Joy Labinjo’s colorful paintings in her solo exhibition, Joy Labinjo: Our histories cling to us, at BALTIC in Newcastle are based on her archive of family photographs — intimate snapshots of domestic life in both the UK and Nigeria. In some, family members pose formally, dressed in smart clothes that hint at bygone eras (for instance, broad lapels, boxy suits). Others show more candid moments: an older woman sitting on a sagging armchair or a young boy with his arm around his brother’s shoulders. The figures are layered with visual references to stylized interiors, furniture, plants, and bright patterns. Many of these aesthetic details are compiled from Flickr and Instagram; as a result, the paintings straddle online and offline worlds and forge links between past and present.

As well as drawing on her personal experience as British-Nigerian, Labinjo cites the influence of the British Black Arts Movement beginning in the 1980s on her work, which she claims in an accompanying video gave her the confidence to paint Black individuals and families in everyday spaces. The exhibition’s subtitle, Our histories cling to us, is a quote from Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It points to the inescapable traces our backgrounds leave on us. In this way, Labinjo’s work critically explores the context of its own making, and the many strands of influence at play.

Joy Labinjo, Our histories cling to us, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, 2019 (photo by Rob Harris © 2019 BALTIC)

Joy Labinjo, “Everything will be alright” (2019) (courtesy the artist and Tiwani Contemporary)

Labinjo’s bold paintings in oil, acrylic, and spray paint are displayed alongside a few expressive works on paper. An exhibition text states, “Together, Labinjo’s paintings can be read as an installation, a series of linked tableaux with an intergenerational cast of characters.” This is emphasized by the curatorial decision to paint the walls and floors in pastel shades, echoing shades in the paintings and drawing them together as a cohesive group.

A number of motifs recur in the works: tropical pot plants crop up in almost every image, for example, perhaps hinting at the uprooting and replanting of a culture that occurs when a family moves to a new country. Many of the paintings also feature Instagram-worthy tropical-print wallpaper, sometimes viewed as if through a window, prompting questions about the fetishization and commercialization of non-Western cultures.

Joy Labinjo, “Two men in transit” (2019) (courtesy the artist and Tiwani Contemporary)

Joy Labinjo, “Love me like you do” (2019) (courtesy the artist and Tiwani Contemporary)

In a video shown outside of the exhibition’s entrance, Labinjo is practical about her artistic process: “The more awkward colors tend to be the cheaper paints,” she says, “so I’ve got more freedom to explore those colors.” She also suggests that her works on paper are looser and more gestural in part because paper is cheaper than canvas, and she therefore feels she can be more experimental or impulsive. It’s a refreshingly down-to-earth note that serves to root her paintings firmly in the real world.

Joy Labinjo: Our histories cling to us continues at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art (S. Shore Road, Gateshead NE8 3AB, UK) through 23 February 2020. The exhibition is curated by Emma Dean.

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Anna Souter

Anna Souter is an independent art writer and editor based in London. She is particularly interested in sculpture, women's art, and the environment.