Meet Joy Labinjo, the painter creating odes to Black Brixton salons and beyond
The figurative artist who creates images of the Black British out of love and from memory has a new installation in Brixton.
As you enter Brixton tube station, the entirety of the first wall you see is covered by a celebratory painting by the Dagenham-born figurative artist, Joy Labinjo. ‘5 More Minutes’, which went up this week and is on view for the next year, illustrates a familiar scene. A good chunk of many black women’s existences includes reclining on the chairs of black hair salons for several hours as skilful hands braid the hair and Joy’s latest artwork encapsulates this experience with incredible accuracy.
It draws on her personal experience growing up in the UK with a British-Nigerian heritage, depicting a typical Saturday morning at a black hairdresser. There are pops of red, possible nods to innovative local black radio No Signal show ‘10v10’, among other recognisable black salon artefacts in the background including posters showing a selection of different hairstyles and a polystyrene head with sewing needles sticking out of it. All of this serves as the backdrop to women waiting beneath hood dryers, toddlers crawling on the floor, and stylists hard at work amid the bustling energy of the scene.
Speaking to gal-dem over the phone, Joy remembers travelling to Brixton to get her hair done growing up and when thinking of what to paint that would represent the area, a friend of hers mentioned the same experience. Some of these salons still exist today despite areas such as Brixton becoming increasingly gentrified, and are a stalwart for people of colour who have lived there for decades.
“[Brixton’s] vibrancy and people inspire me daily. As soon as you get out of the station, you know you’ve arrived: the smell of incense, the buskers, the street raconteurs, the fashionable looks. There’s swagger, charisma and thought all around. It’s irresistible,” says the artist. She further explains that once Art on the Underground, TfL’s contemporary public art program, commissioned her she wanted to make work that reflects the lived experience of other Black women in a notoriously gentrified space that needs to be “protected”.
Joy’s oeuvre isn’t usually public commissions. Her large-scale figurative paintings based on portraits from family albums sold out within two hours of Frieze London’s preview opening in 2019. Her work has also been exhibited at the Royal Academy, Tiwani Contemporary, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art and many other notable art spaces across the UK. “Making public work is quite hard because you don’t want it to be too alienating, but you do want it to be relevant,” she says.
Originally she planned to have two photos to display. “One was a scene of a family that had political posters in the background, which would have been a nod to the Windrush generation, and then I did the salon scene because I’ve always wanted to. I was thinking about artists like Hurvin Anderson and Kerry James Marshall. Marshall painted a salon, ‘School of Beauty, School of Culture’ in, 2012, and Anderson painted a barbershop, ‘Peter’s Series’, made from 2007 – 2009.”
“[Brixton’s] vibrancy and people inspire me daily. As soon as you get out of the station, you know you’ve arrived: the smell of incense, the buskers, the street raconteurs, the fashionable looks. There’s swagger, charisma and thought all around. It’s irresistible”
Many of the figures in Joy’s body of work are from found photographs and photo albums, which comes from her time studying fine art at the University of Newcastle where she graduated in 2017. “I didn’t have access to an abundance of black figures, so the family album was really just a springboard. It gives me access to multiple black people,” she says, noting that many of those illustrated are from her own personal family albums. “But I don’t know who everyone is. It wasn’t about the people as individuals, but more about celebrating my British-Nigerian heritage,” she adds.
Memory is a central component of Joy’s work. When she painted this commission, the UK was enduring its third (and longest) lockdown at the beginning of the year when hair salons across the country were closed. “When I was making it, I had a sense of nostalgia in mind,” she says, explaining that she was yearning for a sense of community. “I was also thinking about [creating] something that would be true to Brixton and its Afro-Caribbean population. I wasn’t able to go to an actual salon so I used sources like images from Shutterstock, stills from YouTube videos and of course, my own memories.”
When we spoke just under a week before the artwork unveiling, she mentioned that she was nervous about what it would look like. “I still don’t know if it’s going to work because I made it on a canvas in the studio,” she explains. Rather than installing the original piece, which was on canvas, a flat copy of it has been put up, which she thought would disrupt the way it may look. But when I see her the morning of its first day she’s glowing, mentioning that it turned out much better than she expected.