Critics’ Picks

Yetunde Ayeni-Babaeko, The Girl with the Blue Scarf, 2019, photographic print on canvas, 24 x 36".

Yetunde Ayeni-Babaeko, The Girl with the Blue Scarf, 2019, photographic print on canvas, 24 x 36".


Yetunde Ayeni-Babaeko

SMO Contemporary Art | Temple Muse
21 Amodu Tijani Cl, Victoria Island Temple Muse
May 25–July 19, 2019

Inspired by Renaissance and Baroque painting, photographer Yetunde Ayeni-Babaeko places her portraits—each one featuring an albino Nigerian—firmly with the history of art in this exhibition, titled “White Ebony.” The works, which are printed on canvas, appear fleshy. From a distance, they could be mistaken for paintings; the sitters are dressed in tulle, fur, or feathers, their skin luminous in chiaroscuro. Drawing from her training in fashion and advertising photography, Ayeni-Babaeko reimagines the work of European masters, including Vermeer and Degas, to create pictures of contemporary Nigeria that are both beautiful and consequential.

Working with the Albino Foundation of Nigeria for more than a year, Ayeni-Babaeko, rather than emphasizing some sort of patronizing exceptionalism for her albino sitters, has staged tender, ordinary scenes, between a mother and child and among friends and lovers. They are singular characters who command their frames by simply smiling, eyes closed, such as in In Tune (all works 2019). However, at times the pictures take a dark turn. In Secret Wishes, a young man tries to paint his skin to appear darker, while a young dark-skinned woman, possibly his lover, powders herself to appear lighter. There is no happy ending here, but what it is visible is love and joy in places not typically depicted in Nigerian society. In the especially striking Twins, two brothers of different skin tones cup each other’s heads in a soft embrace. In this country, it is uncommon to see images of affection between men in visual art, and rarer still is activist art that is both so unabashedly charged and delicately realized.