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

Anthony Akinbola employs an interdisciplinary practice that includes paintings and installations drawing attention to his community as a first generation Nigerian American who identifies with black culture. Undeterred by cultural misconceptions about 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 of socio-economic status that too often sow division in contemporary society.

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

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A blurred figure walks through a museum gallery that features several paintings on the far wall, sculptural baskets hanging from the wall to the left, and a sculpture on a pedestal to the right.

His most recent works from this series are currently on display at the Hauser & Wirth location in Los Angeles until December 30, in the latest iteration of “The New Bend,” a series of exhibitions curated by Legacy Russell, director of the kitchen in New York, which pays homage to the textile work of contemporary black artists. In two solo exhibitions earlier this year, at the Krinzinger Gallery in Vienna and at Sean Kelly in New York, Akinbola presented installations that rely more on visual narratives that establish connections between people, products, societies and natural resources.

To learn more about his practice, ART news spoke with Akinbola over the phone. This interview has been edited and condensed.

ARTnews: How long have you been doing art?

Antoine Akinbola: I’ve been making art intentionally since my sophomore year in college. It’s been almost 10 years now. I studied communications in Edinboro [in Pennsylvania] and finally transferred to the purchase [College in Upstate New York]. At Purchase, I started making art even though I was not 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 works that incorporate durags, which you have called “camouflage paintings”. What are some of the underlying ideas behind them?

The durag comes in many colors and textures. After making a few works, I became interested in the history and usefulness of the object. It’s a material I know well, but not everyone who uses a durag knows the story behind it. As a Nigerian American wearing the durag there is an element of people assuming I am a certain type of a black person based on what they have seen in movies or music videos. To me, I felt like “camouflage” became an appropriate title for the series because there was this element of camouflage in these different ways that I saw. I knew the material was obviously loaded. I think that’s kind of what grounded the work when the question became “why durags” and “why titles”. I thought about figurative abstraction in relation to these paintings. I bring things from the world that exist and present them in a way that allows me to work with color and form, but it remains rooted in this conceptual, out-of-the-box game of deriving value from objects and give them a new context in which to live.

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

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

Photo Adam Reich/Courtesy of the artist and Sean Kelly

After your residency this year at the Galerie Krinzinger, you inaugurated an exhibition, entitled “Multilateral”, which included several installations. What was the experience of making these paintings?

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

Your show, “Natural Beauty” at Sean Kelly, features a stuffed goat on the subterranean level of the gallery. What does this have to do with paintings?

I had this goat in a previous show at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center [in Sheboygan, Wisconsin], and it was installed in the same orientation it was looking at a painting. This show also dealt with fetishism. There is a pervasive quality that the goat has from biblical times to contemporary abbreviations of GOAT [“greatest of all time”] and what that means in regards to individuals and celebrities. I consider it a symbol known throughout history. Sometimes people see the work and can appreciate it. But I think I have an audience that can appreciate the work, and then there’s the audience that can feel this.

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

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

Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Krinzinger

What is, for you, the difference between appreciating and feeling?

There are people who enjoy the work but don’t know what a durag is. I think how alienated I would feel going to art galleries in Chelsea before I was a practicing artist. I think being able to have something in a museum or a gallery and having the security guard know more about it than the curator or the gallery is a way of redistributing power and subverting the power dynamics in that space. The purpose of the work is not necessarily to do this. It’s about creating a connection for people who look like me rather than denying access. I came here to make art, not to reverse the power dynamic.

I had a conversation with a friend and great artist, Devin N. Morris, and I remember him saying to me, “You don’t do this job to teach people respectability, there’s something Deeper. Your spirit and your soul are there. After that conversation, I thought back to work and how I approached it. After a few years it stopped becoming durags and started becoming paint. It became more. I’m now at the point where I’ve started to find my speed and my style and how I want to work with color and paint.

In “Natural Beauty”, you have also integrated installations into the exhibition.

I specifically used Afro peaks with no fist on it because I think the hairstyle itself was created as a form of resistance. At first glance, you may not know that the combs are a souvenir from the exhibition. There is a fetishization if you don’t use it as a comb and only keep it as an art object. Durags are deconstructed to the point that some people don’t even know they are durags.

There was a diamond installed on the wall. The main point with the diamond was to make a strong movement 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 talk about valuables, you have everything from durag to diamond. Conversations in my work have often focused on how I tone down my African identity and my Black American identity.

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