Morley Gallery presents Joy Labinjo: Belonging

Morley Gallery launches its new programme, with a solo exhibition by emerging painter Joy Labinjo. Labinjo is the recent recipient of one of the most prestigious graduate art prizes in the UK, the Woon Foundation Prize,

Labinjo’s paintings draw on her British-Nigerian heritage and examine the complex relationship between identity, race and culture. In Belonging, Labinjo invites the viewer to step into large-scale canvases saturated with colours, patterns and people, reconfigured from her family photograph albums. She scrutinises and dissects these junctures of belonging from photographs of special occasions to informal no-filter snapshots. In doing this, Labinjo simultaneously connects with personal histories and uproots them, freeing and displacing individuals from a collective narrative, to create a new space of multiple histories and representations.

The exhibition will also feature a reading room supported by Iniva’s Stuart Hall Library, where visitors can explore the themes of exhibition further: Alt A caught up with Joy about her up-coming exhibition.

Q: When drawing on personal experience for inspiration how do you decide on the significance of each experience, so that it becomes important enough to become a subject?

I paint using family photographs and found images as source material. I have a lot of choice and select them based on what I find interesting; for example, the colours, composition, an interesting face or the interior. The photographs feature a mix of my parents, their friends and family. They’re not very important in themselves as they’re snapshots of everyday life. I don’t know who took them but at times it’s as though the subjects didn’t even realise the photographs were taken.

The photographs become more interesting as I add to them, changing the backgrounds, enhance colours and fuse photographs together creating a new image. There are some traditional methods that can also be used to create a sense of importance. When I look at a finished painting I’m sometimes surprised that such energy and vibrancy can come from a photograph. The scenes painted aren’t that important. You have children sitting on a step, adults sat down talking. They’re very mundane situations but I wanted to paint black people doing normal things. I wanted to show that black people do normal things and engage in common everyday situations.

Q: At what point did you decide to explore the relationship between culture, race and identity?

My degree was four years and I can pinpoint that moment to the beginning of my third year. I had decided to write my dissertation on Black British artists of the 1980s and was alone studying in Vienna for a semester. I don’t know what drew me to that dissertation topic as it wasn’t touched on within art history but my interest in the Black British artists of the 1980s was a significant moment in developing my practice. First arriving in Vienna, I had very few friends and responsibilities, so I had the chance to really think and became really engaged in my dissertation topic. I guess you could say I became ‘woke’. I realised that many of the issues faced by the artists back then were similar to problems faced today. Visibility within the art world is significantly lower for females and `artists from a BAME background. Reading about Claudette Johnson, Lubaina Himid, Sonia Boyce and others gave me the confidence I needed to explore my own identity. They were making work about themselves and things they thought were important. I think learning about the likes of Manet and Hogarth can skew ones’ view of what’s worthy of being painted.

It was about a year of working through these ideas and sort of letting go before I found a way to paint these ideas in a way that I was happy with.

Q:  Can you explain some of the processes that might go into the creation of a piece of work?

Sure, I tend to think of ideas for paintings faster than I can paint. It will begin with flicking through a photo album making a note of photographs that I find interesting. I scan them into the computer and use PowerPoint to play around with them. The composition of the figures to remain the same, I tend to play around with the environment the figures are in, taking inspiration from Ankara prints and using the pattern as a ‘wall paper’. I might also use images of a table or plant found from google or another artists work and collage it in. My computer skills are very basic, so I end up producing a boxy layered image but that’s enough for me to create the painting from. Surprisingly though I have just begun a painting where I didn’t use a computer. I selected part of one photograph that I really liked, drew it onto the canvas and looked through the photo album to find the other pieces to the puzzle. I didn’t know what I was looking for put managed to find a composition I was happy with by using parts of three photographs.

Q: At what point did you decide to become an artist?

I’ve only recently felt comfortable calling myself an artist. When I chose to study Fine Art, I didn’t necessarily think I’d become an artist. A part of me thought it would be great but I couldn’t see it happening. I saw myself as a student who studied Fine Art, but not an artist. I had planned to maybe do a master’s in business or marketing, and carry on painting because I genuinely feel happiest when painting. It was only after winning the Woon Prize and graduating that I began to see myself as an artist. Not necessarily because I was the winner although winning provided me with the financial stability to paint full time but more so because painting became my occupation. I didn’t have the term student to fall back on. I am a painter!

Q: Can you tell me about the upcoming exhibition at Morley Gallery?

It’s my first solo show and first show in London so it’s special to me. The work on show is a combination of my degree show work and new work made very recently over the last few weeks. The show will also include a reading room which Iniva (Institute of International Visual Art) helped with. I visited the Stuart Hall Library and selected a range of meaningful texts that should help to provide context to the work on display. The texts chosen to relate to my work in different ways, some discuss identity and others the use of photography. I’ll also be doing a reading group with Iniva.

Working with the Morley Gallery has been a great experience and I’ve learnt so much. I called it Belonging because it was important for Black people to come and feel welcome but also because it was that learning where I belong, or feel I belong that made this body of work possible.

Q: What was the inspiration behind Belonging show?

Coming up with an exhibition title that encompasses all you want to say is very difficult. I find it hard to title my works, not to mention titling an exhibition.

I like to keep things simple and was looking for one word that did that for me. I brainstormed a few ideas and thought about how I began this body of works and what it meant to me.

I used a thesaurus to find a word that worked once I had an idea, and landed on ‘Belonging’.

The body of work partly because I was trying to figure out where I belong. The reading room and the paintings will create a new environment where viewers can relax and hopefully get that sense of belonging.

Q: How did you feel when you won the Woon Foundation Prize?

I found out that I had won on the night and the first word that comes to mind was complete surprise. I really didn’t think I would. It was very surreal; third place was read out, then second and then my name. I burst into tears as some of the previous winners did. When the shock subsided, I was just really pleased and extremely grateful. It was quite a weird day, we went for dinner and drinks and the next day I was at work hungover with all of that feeling like a bit of dream. I had a 3 month wait from winning to being able to take up the studio space which provided me with the chance to reflect and be ready. I don’t think I really appreciated how much of a big deal it was, but it is. It really taught me to believe in myself because even after haven written the application I still wasn’t sure whether I should send it. I am so glad that I found my courage within myself to do so. It’s so important to put yourself out there and to allow others to give you a chance even if you think it isn’t possible. You won’t get the job you want or get the prize you want if you don’t even apply.

Q: What other artist do you admire?

I love the work of Njideka Akunyili Crosby and Sonia Boyce. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings were the first paintings I saw of black people painted by a black person. I saw some of her work in the Venice Biennale in my first year of university and loved it. That’s quite sad because I was 18, nearly 19 and these artists do exist!

During my A levels I spent a lot of time pouring over Jenny Saville and Lucien Freud. I do admire their work, but I think it’s perhaps a bitter sweet ‘relationship’ and I admired them a bit too much.

Q: What do you look for when looking for something to paint?

At the moment I’m working from photographs. I’ll begin by flicking through a photo album and from that I’ll get quite a few ideas. Next, I’ll scan or photograph all the photographs that have caught my interest into my laptop and go from there. I’ll look at them on the computer and experiment with composition and colour. Cropping and layering the parts I’m really interested in.

Q: What is your favorite media when creating a new work?

I work using oil paint and household paint. A lot of artists say that they what they really love about oil paint is the fact that they can wipe it off and start again. I realised the other day that I rarely take paint off. I might wipe sections off if I’ve done something awful but most of the time when it’s on it’s on. What I do love is that if I come in the next day and see something within the painting that I’m not happy with I can just paint over it and carry on. It can sometimes take a while for me to get the faces ‘right’ so the paint tends to be quite layered and thick in those areas but there’s nothing that can’t be covered with more paint!

Dates: 11 Jan-10 Feb 2018 Times: Mon-Fri 11.00-18.00 Sat 12.00-16.00

Where: Morley Gallery, 61 Westminster Bridge Road, London SE1 7HT

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