I have been very deliberate in how I use colours to communicate certain messages in most of my works. There’s no real combination needed to express that message more than it already is with durags. The durag itself is so unapologetically black.
It’s a little past mid-day in Los Angeles, and I’ve just got on a zoom call with Anthony Akinbola as he steps outside to what I assume to be the back entrance of the Night Gallery, momentarily pulling him away from the ongoing installation of his artworks. As we speak, he pulls a lighter out of his pocket to light the blunt in his hand, settling into a relaxed state for our conversation. It’d only been two minutes into our call, but I’d realized soon enough, while Anthony was someone with a detail-oriented, profound sense of understanding and process to his practice, he also knew not to take himself too seriously.
Sweet Tooth, his latest show opening over the weekend, is a lush mirage of vibrant colours and enticingly multidimensional sculptures that continue to stitch together his explored conversations of indulgence, discipline, and self-control. Anthony’s representational abstractive foundations are eternal, but the experimental haptic experience of Sweet Tooth is the playful yet powerful influx of a flourishing visual language. When I ask him over the call to speak on his relationship with his new sense of programming within his work, as he describes it to be, Anthony replies, “I don’t want it to be this live-or-die-by-the-sword situation with my work. I wanna be known for making shows.”
Olisa Tasie-Amadi Jr.: Is there any conversation within your work directly focusing on the relationship between your choice in using the lens of abstraction and the concept of the readymade to convey the message behind your work?
Anthony Akinbola: I’ve been making the works for so long the last six years, so maybe not so long, but the narrative has developed each time and now I’m interested in abstraction in that way. I guess this is the thing, right? It depends on which we’re talking about: the paintings or the show?
O: I’d like to start with the paintings first, and then the show.
A: For the paintings, yes. I think I’ve been using the term representational abstraction. Though, I think that is kind of like the foundation for how you can look at the works, but after a while, it loses its meaning if you’re just looking at the composition alone. I think you could just see a painting and be like, “Oh, I like what’s happening in this part of it and this part” but then there’s the conceptual element of making abstractions with durags in the context that durags have, and how they change from perspective to perspective. For example, you’re Nigerian I take it?
O: I am, yes!
A: Being Nigerian there’s a relationship that we have with the durag that’s a little different because, you know, in Nigeria they look at it as this Black American thing, and at the end of the day, it’s either that or it being associated with hip-hop. It’s such an international object. It’s coveted. Yes. And I think it’s like, I don’t know how a non-black person looks at this work, or how white person will look at this work and what they think of when they think of durags. I’ve had to deal with that and understand that in the work, and so it’s almost like programming. In the studio, I’m thinking of making this show, I’m thinking of making these paintings. I’m thinking of shame, indulgence, discipline, and conversations around self-control.
O: Let’s talk about your new exhibition, Sweet Tooth. You’ve always established, from the beginning, a sense of growing experimentation with your work, both through colour and form; and as the show presents, there’s this growing exploration of indulgence, discipline, shame, and all these conversations around self-control.
A: Those exactly are the conversations that are arising in this show, thus the sweet tooth. There’s a balance of making art objects to sell and survive, and to be able to make works that sit in a context like the last show I did here which was really focused on the readymade products and market. This show is more about telling the story of the paintings being really colourful, really vibrant, and all its two tones. Then I start to think of candy packaging, and I start to think of conversations around the sweet narrative. What is that craving? Then I think about how things are advertised. How dopamine is released, maybe by eating chocolate or maybe by playing a claw machine game that you’re almost close to winning. That is what I’m trying to bring out in the show. At the same time, I don’t want to subject the work to just that, because then you lose sight of this new conversation around the same abstraction.
O: I find the awareness of you not wanting to subject the work to just one narrative quite interesting, right? You’ve been able to do that very well through this show with the inclusion of the claw machine and having non-conventional mediums present. There’s the constant sense of thinking about how you want the works to exist.
A: Exactly. I’ve made these custom candy wrapper packages, and there’s this truck I’m gonna show you that’s been handing out the candy across the city. With that, as you said, it’s just constantly thinking about how I want them to exist in the world. And some people are going to see them (paintings) for the first time, but for me, I don’t want it to be this live-or-die-by-the-sword situation with my work. I wanna be known for making shows.
O: Would you imagine the durag paintings’ meanings or how it’s being perceived changing in instances where you might choose to use a more conventional oil or acrylic on canvas as a medium? If ever, you choose to do so.
A: I wouldn’t want to make that, more because I don’t see myself being pulled towards that medium. I think that abstraction is purely associated with the durag. You can’t really sketch it out before you do it, it’s always just about feeling it out as you go. I always also come about these things naturally, but with paintings, it would be too much focus on the process. I like being limited, and I think the durags even started that way. I was walking to countless beauty stores in the city looking for three green durags.
O: It’s quite powerful that concept of limitation and being able to minimize the variables you’re working with. In this context, we’re talking about color. The fewer colours there are the more space around them that you can create, and with that, you know, you’re able to have this influx of power in its meaning. From that you’re able to have these singular colours establish their own characters.. their own identity shaped through, in your case, the different tones or the different washes.
A: You’re right, and as you said, it works perfectly once you’re able to understand it. At the same time, limiting myself to just the durags, I’m able to apply the same concept in the works that aren’t the paintings. For the sculpture, for example, I’ve just used that overlock stitch which has become iconic with contrast stitching on a durag. And when people see the work, they just assume it’s that but it’s the stitch now. That’s also me evolving now into being able to make textile paintings.
O: What does the sourcing process look like?
A: I just get any color I can get and stock up on it. I’m constantly just trying to build a portfolio of different colours. You might find a new pink if you go to a beauty supply store in Harlem that is old, you know. They don’t have all the new ones because everything’s becoming the same now. So getting old ones is almost like a game of finding deadstock durags. Buying wholesale, it’s a little different. They make it but sometimes even when they dye it, it never always comes out the same. They fit that readymade identity.
O: Would you say your intention when creating your work is always, if ever, a political statement, or rather social discourse?
A: It’s usually only discourse.
O: We’ve previously brought up the conversation of color theory, but very briefly. How was studying and embedding its understanding into your work allowed you to better express your exploration of Blackness, most especially when speaking on topics such as fetishism and globalism?
A: It’s helped me understand how color theory exists in the natural world. With some of the works, I have been very deliberate in how I use colours to communicate certain messages. With the durags, there’s no real combination that would need to express that more than it is. The durag itself is so unapologetically black. It became more about asking myself what color palette I can entice you with. I’ll show you later but I had this one painting that just looked sickly. It’s a bright pale peach and a dark underpainting that gives it a certain energy. At the end of the day, you can’t forget it’s a durag. It challenges the viewer when they’re looking at it to accept it outside of its political material connotation, right? Do you think of Neapolitan ice cream? Do you think of readymade and mass production? Do you think of America? Do you think of hip-hop? There’s a guy that walked in here, he was talking about prison. I’m like, it really is this object that’s up for grabs. In the same way people forget that Mark Bradford’s paintings are hair dyes, signs from LA, and things like that in nature.
O: Lastly, what are your hopes for the show and yourself?
A: For myself, with the works, I was really looking to improve on that visual language and have the audience see the vision and the development of the works. For the show, I want people to be able to empathize with how I’m looking at it as a show rather than individual objects. It’s a puzzle. Sometimes it’s hard to see that in the works: having people see the themes and how you’re using the objects to convey them. I want to show the fact that they’re all able to harmonize with one another.
Sweet Tooth is on view at the Night Gallery, Los Angeles from March 25th – April 29