Joy Labinjo: Led To The Market

Across the last 30 years the narrative of official Contemporary Art has unfurled like a Chinese scroll. We can follow how, from around 1990, those commercial techniques pioneered to manufacture reputations by Charles Saatchi were adopted as a template by other speculators eager to cash in. This was the start of a racket which turned the art market into an investment game of chance played by billionaires and super-dealers. Public galleries went along with it hoping for free scraps and helped along by telephone numbers of taxpayer cash. More recently these same strategies have been weaponised by State Art to engineer a preferred social character to the official art landscape. For them the process is a cinch. Whereas Saatchi only had one gallery to work with, State Art oversees a score of them as well as having access to the limitless potential blackmail offered by exclusive control of public subsidy.

And so the story continues… Clicking through Christie’s results for their recent ‘20th Century Sale’, an auction in which Banksy’s (21st century) NHS drawing (see p. 29) fetched a higher price than Picasso, Modigliani or Bacon, one lot leapt from the screen. This was a lively picture of Pop Art thrust called No Wahala (No Problem in Nigeria’s Hausa tongue), by a 26-year-old British artist from Dagenham, Joy Labinjo, who is also being sold as an ‘African artist’. My interest was aroused because this painting fetched £150,000, five times its estimate. I’d never heard of her, not least, I suspect, because she’s still a student, yet here was a work clearly being exchanged as an investment bond in an auction of the usual blue chip names. The work was painted two years ago, having been exhibited in a solo show at Baltic Arts Centre; that is, local to where Labinjo took her first degree in Newcastle. A sell-out dealer display at an art fair followed with works priced at ten grand each. Within months the Government Art Collection, always wide awoke, jumped aboard with a £70,000 purchase. Barely dry, No Wahala has thus already been through three owners. Labinjo’s prices, meanwhile, have been bounced upwards by 15 times in only 18 months to a level way beyond the means of public galleries. 

Labinjo is part of a State Art policy to race especially young black women painters into prominence. This demonstrates to the world that for all our past institutional and systemic racist failings we are now, at last, ‘diverse’.

No Wahala (5’ x 6’), done in a mixture of household gloss, acrylic and oil,   concerns, we are told, ‘racial identity’. This phrase is the go-to validation now routinely attached to all works by young black artists. Used here it is clearly untrue. Labinjo’s are pictures based on snapshots from her family albums which are fed into a computer and collaged on screen. They are no more about ‘racial identity’ than paintings of white people would be. Other promotional nonsense written about this work by a Christie’s hack made me laugh out loud.

Execution is in patches of colour like stained glass or painting-by-numbers. Figures are crude, faces twisted, clothes limp, limbs disjointed and background colours Dulux bright. Because the means to achieving precise expression of a figure’s feelings are unmastered, one can’t read properly the mood or sentiment of the subjects featured. Nevertheless, and naive as it is, the picture has presence and honesty. I sense an unselfish and genuine desire to communicate. There is no suggestion here of the fashionable sloganising so wearisome in work by other artists from a similar background.

Labinjo is one of several black British women painters, of which she is the most interesting, to be subjected to this market grooming process for political, social and profitable rather than for purely artistic reasons. Incidentally, a picture by the most famous of the group, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, who is currently showing at the Tate and whose work to my eye is meritless, sold a landscape in the same sale as No Wahala for an astounding £513,000.

Is it fair to so exploit a promising student artist? One can’t blame the young for going along with a system which lines their pockets – good luck to them. But is subjecting art and reputation to artifical inflation really considerate of an artist’s long-term development and welfare? It is a process, don’t forget, which regularly fails. Consider the vapid, repetitive merchandise produced by Saatchi’s more famous discoveries, for whom as prices rocketed and publicity snowballed so the work got thinner and thinner. The fear is that Labinjo will, like them, be turned by market gamblers into a one-trick pony. 

Meanwhile, painting that will last the test of time is being made elsewhere, out of the limelight. Not that State Art will ever let you know. David Lee