Tunji Adeniyi-Jones featured in first solo exhibition in Hong Kong at White Cube

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Tunji Adeniyi-Jones featured in first solo exhibition in Hong Kong at White Cube
Installation view of 'Deep Dive' by artist Tunji Adeniyi-Jones.

HONG KONG.- White Cube Hong Kong opened on March 22nd ‘Deep Dive’, a solo exhibition by Tunji Adeniyi-Jones and the artist’s first in the region. For this show, which will end on May 20th, 2023, the artist has created a new suite of paintings and delicate lithographs that address historical subjects – such as mythology, religion and the spectacle of ceremony – through the lens of the contemporary diaspora.

As a British Nigerian living and working in Brooklyn, New York, Adeniyi-Jones’s influences are wide ranging, and comprise African, American and European references. Grounded though the works are in the myth and culture of his own Yoruba heritage, he also looks to the Black-American culture of his immediate surroundings, embracing both the similarities and differences between this lineage and his own. Executed in oil on canvas or in acrylic on board, the paintings feature near life-size figures in vibrant colours set against a background of foliage, making reference to the intricate patterns of the 19th-century Arts and Crafts movement, specifically the tile designs of William de Morgan. With its roots in Modernism, the movement aimed to combine human ingenuity with natural form to advance a utopian vision. At the same time, the artist’s use of foliage as motif is an allusion to West African literature, wherein the jungle often appears as a symbol of exploration, transition and potential.

Rotating the canvas while working allows the artist to create a space with indeterminate horizon line and orientation; it is within this space that the solid ground becomes destabilised, its gravitational pull undermined. Enabling Adeniyi-Jones to choreograph the dance between bodies and natural forms also is a conception of the body as both a specific and open-ended entity. This idea is realised through his use of the silhouette, a reference to American artist Aaron Douglas (1899–1979) – who used silhouettes in his work as an expression of multiplicity – as well as the effortless fluidity of paintings by Nigerian Modernist Ben Enwonwu (1917–94). As Adeniyi-Jones says: ‘The silhouette increasingly creates an open space for any viewer to assume the position of what they’re seeing.’

Confined within a shallow picture plane, the gender-fluid bodies are muscular to the point of appearing stylised, each toned limb, torso and head emphatically delineated. Working against the flattened pictorial space championed by abstraction, figures dip and dive, emerging and retreating from their backgrounds, the sinuous outlines of leaves subtly echoing the curves of the body in endless rhythmic iteration. The paintings result from a drawing-centred process (in which lines can be overdrawn as much as five times in a single work), as such, the figures are outlined with thin black paint. The eyes, the last element to be added, punctuate each composition, their directional gaze lending agency and autonomy to each of the figures as well as serving to draw the viewer’s gaze into and around the complex pictorial space.

‘I often try to place my figures in environments that are complementary’ he has stated. ‘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.’ Harnessing the potential of colour, what the artist terms ‘chromatic space’, the saturated, monochromatic character of the paintings is activated by the interplay of textures made possible by the applications of gesso, matte medium and varnish.

Echoing the dynamism of the larger canvases, a new body of lithographs extend the themes of the paintings at a personal scale. Printmaking forms a generative part of the artist’s practice; one that is collaborative and, as he sees it, less predictable, and which connects him to a lineage of Nigerian artists including Bruce Onobrakpeya, Demas Nwoko and Yusuf Grillo. The series of six new ‘Midnight Voices’ lithographs directly inform the new paintings, featuring silhouetted bodies lying in repose against complex patterns of foliage and flora. Possessing the quality of a looser touch of hand, they offer an ‘intimate insight into the thought process behind my larger works’.

Tunji Adeniyi-Jones’s paintings emerge from a perspective of what the artist describes as ‘cultural addition, combination and collaboration’. Born and educated in the UK and now living and working in the USA, his practice is inspired by the ancient history of West Africa and its attendant mythology, and by his Yoruba heritage.

Often beginning with studies in ink pen or watercolour on paper as a means to explore his imagery, Adeniyi-Jones employs a varied palette and works with different seasons or times of day. His characters and forms are repeated and re-worked in multi-panel paintings which depict figures in small groups or pairs, invoking the ritualized repetition integral to ceremonial processes.

His boldly coloured paintings are set within a flat, shallow space located in modernist abstraction – in particular the overlapping planes of Cubism and the colourful papier découpé of Matisse – as well as the narratives and symbolism of West Africa. In these, abstract backgrounds of lush, stylized foliage proliferate across the canvas surface, the sinewy bodies emerging and dispersing into the tessellating shapes and interlocking swathes of colour.

‘The bodies and forms depicted in these works can all be derived from the African continent, and more specifically rooted in a mythology emanating from the West African coast [...] The figures in my work are expressions of my identity and there is something very rewarding about using the body as a vehicle for storytelling’ he has said.

The figures are rendered in a vibrant single colour and built up from a composite of neatly connecting organic forms, and appear tightly contained within the confine of the picture plane. Reds, oranges and yellows or vivid combinations of scarlet and fuchsia blend together in compositions that reference the Dutch wax-resist fabric designs common to Africa, themselves a product of complex cross-cultural exchange. In some works a predominantly dark palette using a tonal range of indigo and violet, conjures night time, with figures outlined in pale colours that give them an otherworldly appearance, of luminous spirits from a vision or dream.

Singular objects such as a royal Asante stool, West African performance mask, Ife head or Benin bronze can serve as the starting point for paintings. In a number of works the Black Crowned Crane, Nigeria’s national bird, features prominently, while in others, the ritual mask used in Yoruba ceremonies is present as a means to obscure the face of the central figure. In recent paintings, figures are drawn using flowing lines – loosely resembling the facial lines of scarification practices – that run the length of the body, tracing and enhancing its curvaceous form.

Addressing the perception of the black body within Western painting – and in particular, its association with physicality – Adeniyi-Jones uses the body as both narrative instrument and primary tool of communication. Emphasising the importance of dance and body language in a continent where over 1000 languages co-exist, his works site the figure at the fulcrum of contemporary diasporic identity, one formed, as the artist notes, by ‘travel, movement and cultural hybridity’.

Adeniyi-Jones locates his paintings within a specifically Nigerian cultural landscape; one that includes the post-Colonial writing and painting: ‘Every memorable Greek myth or fable that we know of has an equally compelling African counterpart, but because of reductive concepts like primitivism, one rarely sees the expansive world of ancient West Africa represented outside of the continent. These cultural parallels have been detailed most notably through the literature of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Amos Tutuola, and I want my paintings to serve as a visual accompaniment to this lineage,’ he has stated.

Tunji Adeniyi-Jones was born in London in 1992 and lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. In 2014 he received his Bachelor’s in fine arts from The Ruskin School of Art, Oxford University, UK and in 2017 he was awarded an MFA in painting and printmaking from Yale School of Art, Connecticut, USA.

Selected group exhibitions include ‘Sounds of Blackness’, Metropolitan Museum of Manila (The M), Philippines (2023); ‘When We See Us: A Century of Black Figuration in Painting’, Zeitz MOCAA, Cape Town (2022); ‘In Our Time: Selections from the Singer Collection’, Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, Arizona (2022); ‘Out of the Fire: The 14th Dakar Biennale’, Dakar, Senegal (2022); ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’, Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama (2022); ‘Citizens of Memory’, The Perimeter, London (2021); ‘Forms of Life’, Morán Morán, Los Angeles (2020); ‘A Chance Encounter’, (curated by Tunji Adeniyi-Jones), Parts & Labor, Beacon, New York; ‘to dream a man’, Clima, Milan (2020); ‘Art on the Grid’, Public Art Fund, New York (2020); ‘Black voices, Black microcosm’, CF HILL, Stockholm, Sweden (2020); ‘Young, Gifted and Black: The Lumpkin-Boccuzzi Family Collection’, OSilas Gallery at Concordia College, Bronxville, New York (2019); Lehman College Art Gallery, Bronx, New York (2020); and Go ‘Figure!’, Eric Firestone, East Hampton, New York (2019). His forthcoming solo exhibition, ‘Deep Dive’, his first in Asia, is on view at White Cube Hong Kong from 22 March until 20 May 2023.

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