Six vividly-coloured paintings hang in the exhibition space at Bloc Projects, a small artist-led gallery in Sheffield presenting an entirely new body of work by British-Nigerian artist Joy Labinjo. Most focus on an individual or two against a bright, opaque background; the paintings are large, smooth and confident in their application, and bold and graphic in their style.
Labinjo’s previous work was inspired by her own family photograph albums, using images from her childhood and before she was alive as source material to form her own narratives and artistic cosmology. More recently, she has looked to images online and impressions of strangers from her commute, melding them together in her own distinctive style. Here, it is as if she has zoomed in on individuals from the group portraits seen in previous paintings, while still retaining the lightness of touch of pre-digital photography. The influence of the 1980s Black Arts Movement is apparent; Labinjo cites Sonia Boyce, Lubaina Himid and Claudette Johnson as artists that ”similarly provide room for black people to breathe and tell their own story, rather than perform a sensational or preconceived narrative”.
The figures in these paintings are not sensational, but they do have an affectionate monumentality, like canonical 18th-century portraits stripped of their pomposity. ‘Woman in Red’ (2019) pictures a seated figure from below, a single comfy shoe emerging from beneath the swathes of checked drapery. Marooned in a creamy yellow void, the woman’s face is abstracted, as if viewed through glass, but still a smile is apparent, lending a sense of warmth and familiarity.
The most intriguing painting is ‘Man Drinking Coffee’ (2019) where the dazzling patterns of a man’s jazzy shirt are echoed in the dappled light on his skin, his eyes distant as he drinks. The light glares; there is a saturated, febrile quality across the show, seen in Labinjo’s palette of molten reds, oranges and yellows. Another work shows four children running towards the picture plane, their expressions an exuberant confusion of joy and fear. Where other canvases contain symbolic clues to a context - a vase of flowers here, a dangling lamp there - these figures exist in a purely abstract space, a burning orange world. Labinjo clearly has an eye for a striking image and this one is positively cinematic.
There is a visceral delight to be taken in the colours, textures and patterns here, yet Labinjo’s work is also imbued with a sense of the uncanny, seen in the strangely refracted faces that populate her paintings. The defiant anonymity of Labinjo’s figures is ultimately belied by their warmth, reinforced by the exhibition’s ruminative title, ‘As We Were’, which adds an air of the bittersweet, even the nostalgic. While the two more sketchy works on paper on display are an interesting experiment, they lack the tight energy of those on canvas, which are focused, beguiling and quite moving in person. Together they are evocative of the slow construction of individual and collective identity through images, their mutation into memory, and how pungent those memories can be.