November 1, 2020
The young British-Nigerian painter talks about finding inspiration in British black art of the 1980s, the impact of BLM, and what’s getting us through Covid-19
“I like coming to the studio and it just being me,” British-Nigerian artist Joy Labinjo says when I ask whether she gets lonely. The 25-year-old’s career has risen rapidly since graduating from Newcastle University in 2017. That year she won the Woon art prize, then in 2019 had a solo exhibition at the Baltic; she now has works in the current Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and a forthcoming mural commission at Brixton station, south London. At Frieze London last autumn, three of her paintings sold within two hours of the fair’s opening. All of which means she is very busy. Of course she’s spending less time with her peers because of the pandemic, but she is fine with living up to the isolated artist trope. “It’s easier to focus with fewer social engagements,” she says.
My question is partly sisterly concern. I think back to private views, biennales and gallery weekends that I’ve attended without another black person in sight. This is familiar territory for Labinjo. Her work, mostly large-scale, colourful, striking portraits inspired by archival family photographs, initially stemmed from the absence of black people in her academic environment and the teaching material. “What I was being taught wasn’t broad enough,” she says. “I first started using family photographs when I was at Newcastle – it was the easiest way for me to access the black figure.”