Walking into Bloc Projects’ newest exhibition As We Were is like arriving in the living room of artist Joy Labinjo’s family. It is certainly not the furnishings that create this sensation – white cube gallery spaces never feel homely – but the presence of rows of portraits of Labinjo’s friends and family going about their everyday lives. There is a couple looking smart next to a sideboard, a man drinking coffee and two bridesmaids at a wedding. It is a collection of poses and memories that would fit snuggly in most domestic settings.
However, Labinjo’s large-scale paintings capture a domesticity long overlooked by western art as she is British-Nigerian and seeks to create space for black communities to narrate their own experiences. In several of the paintings, backgrounds are replaced by block colour, so instead of trying to place the subjects in a time or a place, we are invited to focus solely on the features and expressions of the human being. The faces of her subjects are captivating, and the careful use of colour and shadow creates movement; a woman in red looks mid conversation, whilst a bridesmaid looks mid strop.
Labinjo started using family albums as her source material when she was studying her BA in Fine Art at Newcastle University, but for As We Were she blends family figures with found images from popular culture and Instagram. The trick is, she doesn’t reveal who’s who in the title of the works which largely remain untitled. In fact, the only way you’d find out that Man Drinking Coffee is Labinjo’s father is if the curator happens to tell you. This removal of titles and the combination of personal and impersonal subjects creates an accessible array of faces with numerous possible identities, unaffected by any preconceived notions of who they might be.