Cover image: Chinaza Agbor, The Tender Side, 2021, Oil on canvas, 50 x 50 cm. Courtesy of the artist.
Born to Nigerian migrants in Texas, Chinaza Agbor creates artwork that reflects an intersectional African feminist experience. In her forthcoming solo show Kindness and Hospitality from a Foreigner, which takes her across the Atlantic to Cob Gallery, Chinaza reveals new works that are rich with the distinctive fusion of figuration and abstraction that her work regularly features. Patterns are solarised and filled with intersecting colors that reflect luminous Black skin tones and hair texture shared by the collective diaspora experience of hair rituals. Hair has long been a major factor in black identity and Chinaza’s focus on the hair of the subjects of her painting serves on its own as an indicator of a shared understanding and experience.
Chinaza continues her unique exploration of Black womanhood in oil and canvases that are awash in the colours of her native Texan sunsets. The show is also, replete with the rattle and buzz of crickets and cicadas that eerily recall how climate change has rendered these once seemingly ubiquitous insects less common. The exhibition also features an array of sculptural work to further develop ideas and themes including a tea set clad in Afro weave combining the already gendered and racialized idea of homemaking – with a sense of a merged difference.
Chinaza Agbor, Blondie, 2021, Oil on canvas, 70 x 80 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Jeffrey Deitch.
Chinaza spoke to Boy.Brother.Friend’s Junior Editor, Jojolola Dopamu, before the exhibition, which is from 24 November to 16 December 2023, about the exhibition direction, themes, and its multisensory experience.
What are all the major themes of ‘Kindness and Hospitality from a Foreigner’, and how much do they tie into your personal identity?
Honestly, I think the entire show is about my own personal identity, In coming to terms with being this person who never fit into the boxes that I saw in Texas. I was born to immigrant parents, I’m tall, and I’m different, but most of all, I am out of the realm of femininity, especially in the American South. There are strict standards for what femininity looks like, and that is to be white most of all, to be small, petite, and these things that I technically was not in any way close to. So, I think, it’s all from coming to terms with that feeling of just always being on the outside and not knowing where I stood when it came to where I lived, who I wanted to be, and who I am as a person.
Chinaza Agbor, The Lady, 2021, Oil on canvas, 70 x 80 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Jeffrey Deitch.
Hair plays a significant role in your paintings, could you elaborate on how you approach and infuse meaning into the portrayal of hair in your artwork?
Well, depending on the piece, it's either the hair comes off very still and wiglike, almost like a hat. Or, it comes off as alive, like spiders and I feel like ‘Hair’ in general is just very important to the black experience. Braids, wigs, having no hair, having your Afro out, all of it comes across as political when it shouldn’t be, but the entire existence of a black person, of a black woman, is political in a sense. So when I choose to wear my hair in styles, I’m perceived as one way, and I feel like hair is a very important aspect. And, just drawing on these things that affected me as well growing up.
I’d say that a good 30% of my thoughts are about my hair as well, depending on the month, what am I going to do with my hair? What’s going to happen to my hair? And I like to explain my thinking because I think it’s a taboo subject because we don’t talk about things like wigs, and hairpieces, and just things that women do in order to fit the role of what a woman should look like. And that is a lot of what being a Black woman is, trying to fit into that representation of what femininity is. That’s what I want to really draw on because it’s a very powerful thing. And when I make it look almost like it's alive and spiderlike, I want you to see that it can be dark in some places as well. Hair can do a lot of damage to how people perceive you and to yourself and your confidence as well.
Chinaza Agbor, Everything is going to be alright, 2022, 2021, Oil on canvas, 50 x 50 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Cob Gallery.
In Kindness and Hospitality from a Foreigner, you incorporate a Texan sunset and the sounds of crickets and cicadas, forming a multisensory experience. In what way do these elements contribute to the narrative you plan to weave with this exhibition?
I think it’s very important to highlight these things because I don’t think people realize
that with climate change and the world becoming worse environmentally, these things are beginning to disappear. The intensity of cicadas and these bugs I used to hear in the summer, are things that are still imprinted in my head, and when I go back in the summer, now that I’m 25, I don’t hear those same things at the same intensity. I feel like drawing on those sounds, the sunset, and the scenery that I used to see before that were bulldozed over to build parking lots. Those things are such important pieces of my childhood and when I think back on Texas, that is what I would imagine. You know, grass that looks almost dead because it’s been a dry summer, cicadas, beautiful sunsets, and plains of grass, things like that, that are slowly disappearing are what I like to draw emphasis on.
Can you share some specific memories, moments, or experiences from your youth in Texas that strongly influenced the recreation of ambiance and atmospherics in your artwork and exhibition?
There is a dreamy, atmospheric feel to my paintings as well, and I feel like that really describes what girlhood and my teenage years were for me. It was being Nigerian and battling so many different things like insecurities and really strong emotions. And I never knew what those emotions were, I never knew that what I was battling was just society and the way I was perceived by myself as well. So when I draw on these things, it is dreamy, almost in a nightmarish way. It’s like you start off dreamy, and there are some bad elements that scare you. But it still feels so good at the same time. It feels beautiful and pink and intense with colors and emotions. Those are the things I like to put in my paintings. It’s not necessarily good or beautiful, but it’s a third thing, something in the middle. When I think of stories, I [also] just think of driving around with my friends in the summer, doing random things, and hanging out in each other’s houses. I feel like that experience is so different from growing up in Europe. There really isn’t much to do in Texas [as a young person], but you’re gonna find something to do so it’s a very unique experience. Just thinking about all those things with such fondness because those things were so formative to who I am as a person right now. I didn’t think anything of them then, but now I do.
Chinaza Agbor, 2022. Photography by Finn Travers for The Face Magazine.