RA Schools Show 2023: Motunrayo Akinola

Published 5 June 2023

While training in a martial arts gym in Islington, Motunrayo Akinola explains how art and fighting require the same discipline.

  • From the Summer 2023 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Down a narrow side street next to Islington’s Screen on the Green cinema is a mixed martial arts gym. It’s here that Motunrayo Akinola has trained, sometimes once or twice a day, for 11 years. “I started coming when I was 19,” he says, as he surveys the morning activity on the gym floor. Now a black belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu, he teaches this and mixed martial arts fighting, or MMA – jiu jitsu’s more combative offshoot, conducted within a cage.

    “My Dad is a black belt in taekwondo, so I learnt that as soon as I could walk,” says Akinola, explaining that he came across jiu jitsu in his teens. Watching a fight in which a diminutive fighter toppled a towering opponent, he was hooked. “I’m a big guy, so I was like ‘how did he do that?’”

    Often dubbed the “chess of martial arts”, jiu jitsu requires strategy over brute strength. Victory relies on a player’s ability to outwit and ‘submit’ the opponent as they grapple, which results in fights with a peculiarly contained tension. “It looks like two people aggressively hugging,” he says, “but there are all these little intricate movements, subtle twitches, that kind of thing. The higher the level, the less intense it appears, because of these slight adjustments. It’s very internal – you’re processing the whole time.” As athletes improve, they hone a style of sparring that is uniquely their own. “Some people have a flair in how they roll, or creativity in moving through different positions. You can all know the same moves, but it’s how you join them together.”

  • Motunrayo Akinola at his Islington gym

    Motunrayo Akinola at his Islington gym

    Photo: Kemka Ajoku/Courtesy the Royal Academy of Arts, London

  • These nuances mean life on the mat isn’t so far removed from that of the studio – two worlds he otherwise keeps separate. “I use my body physically in my art, but more than that both [art and fighting] require the same discipline, the same attentiveness to subtlety, to those little moments.” These moments, the conceptual anchor for his art, which spans sculpture, performance and drawing, are flashes of meaning or charge encountered in day-to-day life. “Little bits of magic which are so tangible,” as he puts it.

    These might take the shape of a comment made in passing, or an idiosyncrasy in an everyday routine. Like a jiu jitsu fighter’s subtly deployed twitch, these are not necessarily things that would stand out, though that is not to say they are benign. Akinola’s British-Nigerian upbringing has, he says, attuned him to “intricacies about both cultures”, which at times reveal a casual superiority in British attitudes. He devises performances to probe, even heighten, such dynamics; Stamp (2021), for instance, drew inspiration from queues at Britain’s border control, where anxieties are so unevenly felt. For the piece, Akinola invited people to a show, only to arbitrarily refuse some at the door.

  • Motunrayo Akinola, Movement 2

    Motunrayo Akinola, Movement 2, 2023.

  • Akinola has a handful of interrelated projects on the go which are contenders for his final-year show, including a set of charcoal drawings on linen inspired by differing traditions of dyeing teeth (Movement 2, 2023). Another sculptural work considers the contingencies of how we wash, contrasting bucket showers used in Nigerian homes with the pressurised fixtures dominant in the West. As he’s evolving an idea or project, does it preoccupy him while he’s on the mat? “Not really, no. But if someone submits me, that will annoy me in the studio all day, for sure.”

    Imogen Greenhalgh is Deputy Editor of RA Magazine.

    RA Schools Show 2023 is at the Royal Academy of Arts from 8 June - 25 June 2023.

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