Joy Labinjo, Terra Firma VII, 2022, oil on canvas, 70 3⁄4 × 98 1⁄4".

Joy Labinjo, Terra Firma VII, 2022, oil on canvas, 70 3⁄4 × 98 1⁄4".

Joy Labinjo

The ten self-portraits comprising “Full Ground,” Joy Labinjo’s debut exhibition in Nigeria, captured the British-Nigerian artist in moments of stillness and repose. In Terra Firma V (all works 2022), she stands firmly, her back turned to the viewer, her braids reaching her waist. In Terra Firma VII, she props herself up on a blue cloth, her braids nearly touching the ground. The poses in some of Labinjo’s works call to mind the women in Rembrandt’s Danaë, 1636–47, or Titian’s Venus of Urbino, 1538. Terra Firma shows Labinjo on a bench, her head wrapped in a black-and-gray-patterned scarf. Other than that, she’s naked. Her legs are spread apart; one hand holds her inner left thigh in place, while the other hand ventures into her vagina.

In a muscular style and strong palette reminiscent of the work of American artist Derrick Adams, Labinjo wields lines, color, and composition to great effect. The backgrounds are spare—green, gray, bronze, or tangerine. The body—with a few exceptions—is the only form in the frame. To create the figure, the artist follows a tightly rendered procession of colors and lines that seem to form a narrative: After brown might come beige, then black, then orange. The pattern might be scrambled in the other direction or changed entirely, but the effect is similar. Labinjo composes the body as a seamless structure, always self-identical, from the top down or bottom up, marked by complementing lines of color. This is an everywoman’s body that has folds at the back, a little protruding belly—the kind that many women can identify with and that’s been increasingly centered in pop culture, for instance by Rihanna’s Fenty empire—a kind that many people for years didn’t appreciate as normal or beautiful, thanks to the fashion industry of the Global North.

As a result of Labinjo’s choices, there is nowhere to look but the body. It confronts the viewer head-on. In the Nigerian context, confrontation doesn’t make things simpler. Lagos can be a fairly liberal city, but Nigeria at large—and especially the folks who collect art in these parts—tends to be hypocritically conservative and patriarchal. Men can paint nude female bodies, sure. But a woman painting herself, let alone in a masturbatory pose? There could have been torches and placards of protest at Tiwani’s door. Aside from the odd murmurs and quiet accusations of flagrant provocation, however, no such event occurred.

This body of work is a marked departure from Labinjo’s previous paintings, which were family portraits, real or imagined, drawn from personal archives and beyond. With the artist’s encouragement, that work was read in light of contemporary conversations around representation, as capturing (according to some critics) the “hidden interiors of Black life” and “Black joy.” The artist has also created political imagery, referencing the failure of the British educational system to account for that country’s involvement in colonialism and the blindness of white people to racism, even in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

“Full Ground” was a whole other matter. The “hidden interior” was now laid bare. Or maybe not. Labinjo does not really reveal much. There was a mystique here, maybe even a mirage. Whereas her previous paintings carry an emotional heft and evoke tender feelings, this series decidedly does not. The absence appears to be polemical—a statement the artist wants to make or a new quality added to her work. If so . . . well. The paintings are definitely to be reckoned with for their technical accomplishment. But that is arguably where the invitation to admire ends. Individually, the paintings, though arresting, are cold, dispassionate. Taken together, they evoke a decades-long tradition of Nigerian women protesting without clothes, going back to the Aba Women’s War of 1929 against British colonial policies. But what is Labinjo protesting, if she’s protesting at all? The paintings don’t aspire to draw you in, make you stay, as the titles of the works suggest. But yes, Labinjo’s work is on firm ground. More so, it’s in ascendancy.