Anthony Akinbola’s Durag Paintings Ask How Objects Become Symbols –

Anthony Akinbola’s Durag Paintings Ask How Objects Become Symbols –

Anthony Akinbola employs an interdisciplinary practice that includes paintings and installations bringing attention to his community as a first-generation Nigerian American who identifies with Black culture. Undeterred by cultural misconceptions of Black American life, Akinbola uses visual art to focus on access and inclusion by encouraging audiences to recognize our collective similarities regardless of race, gender, or socioeconomic status that all too often sow division in contemporary society.

His well-known and instantly recognizable durag “paintings” reflect on the cultural significance these objects hold while also playing on light and color theory through abstraction. While artists such as Josef Albers inspire Akinbola, he makes a clear distinction that his work is not rooted in the Western art historical canon. Instead Akinbola’s use of objects that have risen to become status symbols of culture and power and suggest a sophistication and thoughtfulness to engage in the world through art making.

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A blurred figure walks through a museum gallery that has several paintings on the back wall, sculptural baskets hung on the wall to the left, and a sculpture on a plinth to the right.

His most recent works in this series are currently on view at Hauser & Wirth’s Los Angeles location until December 30, in the latest iteration of “The New Bend,” an exhibition series curated by Legacy Russell, director of the Kitchen in New York, that pays homage to textile-based work by contemporary Black artists. In two solo shows earlier this year, at Galerie Krinzinger in Vienna and Sean Kelly in New York, Akinbola presented installations that further build on visual narratives that draw connections between people, products, societies, and natural resources.

To learn more about his practice, ARTnews spoke with Akinbola by phone. This interview has been edited and condensed.

ARTnews: How long have you been making art?

Anthony Akinbola: I’ve been making art intentionally since my sophomore year in college. It’s been almost 10 years now. I studied communications at Edinboro [in Pennsylvania] and eventually transferred to Purchase [College in Upstate New York]. At Purchase, I started making art even though I wasn’t an art student.

Some of your work addresses identity through the use of the durag, an important cultural totem in Black American culture. Tell me about the works that incorporate durags, which you’ve termed “camouflage paintings.” What are are some of the underlying ideas behind them?

The durag comes in a lot of colors and textures. After I made a couple of works, I became interested in the history and utility of the object. It’s a material I’m familiar with but not everyone that uses a durag knows the history behind it. As a Nigerian American, by wearing the durag there’s an element of people assuming I’m a certain type of Black person based on what they’ve seen in movies or music videos. For me, I felt like “camouflage” became an appropriate title for the series because there’s this element of camouflage in these different ways I was seeing. I’d known that the material obviously was loaded. I think that’s kind of what grounded the work when the question became “why the durags” and “why the titles.” I’ve been thinking about representational abstraction in relationship to these paintings. I’m bringing things from the world that exist and I’m presenting them in a way that allows me to work with color and form, but it’s still rooted in this conceptual, readymade play on pulling value out of objects and giving them a new context to live in.

Gallery with two large paintings composed of durags. The durags are vibrant and colorful, and they are tied together in places so that they droop slightly.

Installation view of “Anthony Akinbola: Natural Beauty,” 2022, at Sean Kelly, New York.

Photo Adam Reich/Courtesy the artist and Sean Kelly

After your residency this year at Galerie Krinzinger, you opened an exhibition, titled “Multilateral,” that featured several installations. What was the experience of making those paintings?

For “Multilateral,”I made a series of palm oil paintings. Palm oil is used in everything from cosmetics to chocolates to plastics. It’s a global resource. The title, “Multilateral,” is about how we are more connected than we’d like to believe or more than we know—that was the theme of that exhibition. The story was being told through the different work I was making during the residency in Vienna. I haven’t shown a lot of my other work. I’m very conscious about when and where I show it because it has to be contextualized properly. With Krinzinger, I knew the style of work would be understood in a more conceptual context [there], and that it was the appropriate time to show it.

Your show, “Natural Beauty” at Sean Kelly, features a taxidermied goat on the subterranean level of the gallery. How is it related to the paintings?  

I’d had that goat in a previous show at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center [in Sheboygan, Wisconsin], and it was set up in the same orientation where it was looking at a painting. That show was also dealing with fetishism. There’s a ubiquitous quality the goat has from biblical times to contemporary abbreviations of G.O.A.T. [“greatest of all time”] and what that means as it relates to individuals and celebrities. I think of it as a symbol known throughout history. Sometimes people see the work and they can appreciate it. But I think there’s an audience I have that can appreciate the work, and then there’s the audience that can feel it.

Gallery with abstract paintings on its walls and a wheeled abstract sculpture in its center.

Installation view of “Anthony Akinbola: Multilateral,” 2022, at Galerie Krinzinger, Vienna.

Courtesy the artist and Galerie Krinzinger

What, to you, is the distinction between appreciating and feeling?

There are people that appreciate the work but don’t know what a durag is. I think about how alienated I would feel when I used to go to art galleries in Chelsea prior to being a practicing artist. I think being able to have something in a museum or gallery and have the security guard know more about it than the curator or the gallery is a way of redistributing power and subverting power dynamics within that space. The goal of the work is not necessarily to do that. It’s about creating a connection for people who look like me versus denying access. I came here to make art not to subvert power dynamics.

I had a conversation with a friend and great artist, Devin N. Morris, and I remember him telling me, “You’re not making this work to teach people about respectability, there’s something deeper. Your spirit and soul is in it.” After that conversation I thought about the work again and how I was approaching it. After a couple of years, it stopped becoming durags and it started becoming painting. It became more. I’m at the point now where I’ve started finding my speed and my style and how I want to work with color and painting.

In “Natural Beauty,” you also incorporated installations in the exhibition.

I specifically used Afro picks without fists on them because I think the hairstyle itself was created as a form of resistance. At first glance you might not know the combs are a keepsake from the exhibition. There’s a fetishization if you’re not using it as a comb and keeping it purely as an art object. The durags are deconstructed to the point where some people don’t even know they’re durags.

There was a diamond installed on the wall. The main point with the diamond was to make a loud move in a minimal space. There were only six paintings and the goat. In the exhibition the diamond worked like a star. It’s funny to me that a lot of people missed it. The diamond represents the idea of consolidated wealth in objects. If we’re talking about objects of value, you have everything from the durag to the diamond. The conversations in my work have often been about how I mitigate my African identity and my Black American identity.

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