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In the studio with Joy Labinjo

Published 22 December 2020

Joy Labinjo is quietly changing the course of art history from a small studio in south London. Writer Fiona Maddocks meets Labinjo to discuss her ambitious paintings, and the next steps in her career.

  • Fiona Maddocks writes for the Observer. Her latest book is Music for Life (Faber & Faber).

    Upstairs, deep inside a former bakery in south London, Joy Labinjo has a tiny studio in which she creates her large, bright, richly communicative figurative paintings in oil and acrylic. Indirectly she has the Royal Academy to thank.

    “A friend was moving out to study at the RA Schools. I’d just come to London, two years ago, and urgently needed somewhere. I was lucky,” Labinjo recalls. Function is all: a day bed, a pair of paint-spattered Crocs, a change of clothes squashed into plastic bags, bubble-wrap, a tin of soup among the tubes of good quality oil paint and brushes on a trolley.

    “That’s what I invested in when I started to sell my work,” she says, a reminder that this young artist is still only in her mid-twenties. “Better materials, better canvases. They might not have improved my skill,” she laughs, “but the brighter colours of the paint and, especially, the better stretchers have made the practicalities of working so much easier.”

  • Portrait of Joy Labinjo

    Portrait of Joy Labinjo

    Photo: Lily Bertrand-Webb

  • A single picture dominates one wall: a man and a woman gaze out, surrounded by luxuriant potted banana plants which, like so many of Labinjo’s visual sources, she found on Instagram. She regards her paintings as collages, in the sense that she constructs them from an assemblage of material, whether photographs or objects. “This piece is a lot more detailed than anything I’ve done before. It’s my friends Isabel and Khuroum at a gallery opening. I loved Isabel’s dress and wanted to paint it… I really want to keep this one.”

    Labinjo, 25, has two works, also of pairs of friends, on show at this year’s Summer Exhibition (Jenny and Louis, 2020; below) – “which I’d never been to, so hadn’t fully appreciated quite what this meant.”

    She was invited to submit by this year’s coordinators, Jane and Louise Wilson RA, who admired her award-winning graduation show at the University of Newcastle in 2017. After a solo show at Baltic in Gateshead at the turn of 2019-20, Labinjo has found herself in the art-world spotlight.

    Forthcoming commissions include the coveted mural space, hosted by Transport for London, at Brixton Tube station, a few streets from her studio. “The Black Cultural Archives are next door so I may go and get some ideas there. I can’t paint what I can’t see.”

  • Born in Dagenham, Essex, Labinjo lived there until the age of ten when her family – she has two younger brothers; her mother is an English teacher, her father a biochemist – moved to Stevenage, Hertfordshire, for a greener life and better schools.

    “I’d always doodled and made paper dolls and the like but it wasn’t until GCSE that art got serious. Until then it was assumed I’d be a lawyer or doctor or engineer.” Much of her work builds on her British-Nigerian heritage: at Baltic, she used a family photo album as inspiration for warm, emotionally arresting depictions of people at home doing ordinary things. The original photos were often poor quality, taken before she was born, of people she’d never known.

    Filling in the smudgy facial details, she came up with a quasi-Cubist style to make a fresh image. “But I think I’ve exhausted that now. I didn’t want to be the girl who just does family photo albums.” Hardly likely. During lockdown her work shifted gear, dramatically.

  • Joy Labinjo, 39 - BREAKFAST WITH VIOLET AND ADAM

    Joy Labinjo, 39 - BREAKFAST WITH VIOLET AND ADAM, 2020.

    oil. 150 x 200 x 4 cm.

  • The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement led to a powerful new body of work, made for The Breeder gallery in Athens. In a matter of weeks she completed ten paintings and four works on paper, under the collective title The Elephant in the Room.

    Each work has its own stark narrative: in one, three members of the Metropolitan Police, one wielding a Union Jack, confront an unseen public; in another, three white men in neat suits with briefcases walk away from a sign saying ‘Africa’, towards one marked ‘Britain’. The collage aesthetic is still there, but the mood has changed. Labinjo happily acknowledges her quick success, but is clear this is only the start. “I want to do more, bigger – yes, even bigger. And I want my work to be more open and free.”

    This year she will study for an MFA at Oxford University’s Ruskin School of Art, keen to learn new techniques and to deepen her knowledge of art history – a history that she herself is quietly and energetically changing. “Showing work is important. Selling it is nice. But for me the magical thing, always, is doing it.”

    From the Winter 2020 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA. Joy Labinjo’s paintings are included in the RA’s Summer Exhibition, running until 3 Jan 2021. Labinjo shows at Tiwani Contemporary, London, in December.

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