Tunji Adeniyi-Jones: Cross Cultural Aesthetics, Hybridity and the History of Painting
New York City-based artist, Tunji Adeniyi-Jones received his Bachelors in Fine Arts from Oxford University and his MFA in painting/printmaking from Yale School of Art. Born in England to Nigerian parents, Adeniyi-Jones has spent a great deal of time between London and Lagos. This cultural duality is at the core of his practice and through painting, sculpture, printmaking, and collage, he attempts to articulate the contemporary aesthetic of the African diaspora through the lens of European history. In this interview with Omenka, he discusses his recent exhibition at the Nicelle Beauchene Gallery, Work on Paper; his interest in cross-cultural aesthetics and cultural hybridity, as well as the exploration of African mythology in his work.
Your exhibition Work on Paper is currently on view at Nicelle Beauchene Gallery, New York. Kindly tell us a bit about the exhibition and the works shown.
This show features an arrangement of small works on paper that are a very important part of my practice. I’ve been building this body of work over the past few years, so it felt like the right time to show them as a marker of how my ideas have gradually grown and matured. Each work is an experiment or a study that has then gone on to become a painting, so the exhibition gives the viewer an intimate insight into the thought process behind my larger works.
You were born in the UK, are of Nigerian descent, and currently live in the United States. How have your dual heritage and cultural experiences on three different continents influenced your work, and how do you reconcile them?
I am extremely proud of my Nigerian heritage and equally grateful for my British upbringing. The combination of these two cultures, each having its own rich and expansive art history, has influenced me from a very young age. Throughout my childhood, I was exposed to a vast array of West African sculpture and textiles, both in my household and during trips to Nigeria. This was instrumental to the development of my bright and vibrant colour palette. I also admired the work of British artists like Lucien Freud, David Hockney, and Francis Bacon. Through all of these formative encounters, I developed a love for painting and a tendency to represent the figure. There are so many compelling cultural crossovers between European art and West African art, and my work is an exploration of this exchange, especially seeing as I can claim ownership over both sides of this transaction. I’m interested in how cross-cultural aesthetics and cultural hybridity relate to the history of painting. European modernist movements like Cubism and Expressionism simply would not exist without the influence of West African sculpture. This kind of interrelation is often overlooked or discredited. Moving to America has added another layer of complexity to this perspective, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in a new environment. I feel very fortunate to be able to travel between these continents and document my findings through painting.
You hold a BFA from The Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford, and an MFA in painting from Yale School of Art, Yale University, but your work increasingly explores the history and mythology of the ancient West African kingdoms. How do you successfully fuse these African themes with your Western education and conventions?
I often think back to the Greek mythology and ancient Roman history that I was exposed to as a student, and I try to look at ancient West African history through the same lens. These ancient kingdoms all ran parallel to each other, but because of reductive concepts like primitivism, we rarely see ancient West African history being taught outside of the continent. Every notable Greek myth and fable that we know of has an equally compelling African counterpart. These cultural equivalents have been brilliantly detailed through the literary works of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and many others, but there is still much room left for visual representation.
Your highly stylised figures are usually shown in acrobatic, floating, sensuous poses. What is your underlying philosophy?
I want the figures depicted in my paintings to be alluring, authoritative, and striking. Many of their poses invoke a sense of physical performance or dance. There are thousands of different dialects spoken across West Africa, but the most powerful language is communicated through the body. This language of dance and performance transcends all cultural boundaries, and my intention is to charge the bodies in my paintings with this same vigour. One of the most impressive characteristics of any West African sculpture is the physical presence held by each object. Whether life-size or miniature, these sculptures convey a memorable sense of personality and spirit, so I strive to capture physical expression.
Is there an additional significance to their frequent depiction among lush vegetation?
I often try to place my figures in environments that are complementary. So, most of my compositions consist of a body situated in a large field of colour. I like to use this colour space to emphasise motion flowing in and around the figure. I’ve found that foliage also works particularly well for this because leaves and vines can be used to emulate the curves and shape of the body. I’ve also taken a lot of inspiration from authors like Amos Tutuola and Octavia Butler. In their wonderfully articulated universes, the jungle space represents a site of infinite possibility. So I try to give animation to nature in the same way.
Your figures also vaguely recall Ben Enwonwu’s famous ‘Negritude’ series, which actively celebrate the Black race. Are you inspired by his work, and what are your points of departure?
I consider Ben Enwonwu to be a pioneer of West African modernism. His work serves as an extensive guide for me as I develop my artistic language. His figures are so effortlessly fluid and expressive. This is definitely something that I am conscious of whenever I paint or draw. I feel honoured to be able to expand upon the themes that he originated throughout the 20th century, and I hope to carry them further forward throughout my own practice.
Traditional African art has always been intertwined with the religion of the people. Is there a religious aspect to your work?
Yes, I draw a great deal of inspiration from my Yoruba ancestry and heritage. Although I don’t practise the religion, there are many religious aspects to my paintings. I spend a lot of time familiarising myself with traditional Yoruba customs and try to incorporate as much of it as possible into my work. For example, I’ve given a few of my paintings very specific titles, such as Eshu and Iyalawo. I enjoy using popular themes and beliefs surrounding iconic Yoruba deities as a starting point in my work. I’m also captivated by ritual masks from all across the West Africa region. The Yoruba Egungun mask has featured in my work, and also masks from the Bwa and Baule. So, I make a point of researching other religious practices too. Ultimately I want there to be an equal allocation of specificity and accessibility to the subject matter in my work.
What forthcoming project would you like to share with us?
I am currently working towards a solo exhibition at Nicelle Beauchene Gallery, which will take place early in 2020.
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