The Artsy Vanguard 2022: Anthony Akinbola

Zoë Hopkins
Nov 15, 2022 5:17PM

In Anthony Akinbola’s Camouflage #105 (Metropolis) (2020), a swarm of silky black fabrics, stretched tautly on a crowded rectangular surface, are pushed and pulled in every direction, overlapping in a maze of fiber that ripples with tension. At first glance, the work appears to be all one color—black—but as viewers step into the painting, a whole world of complicated hues emerges. Blackness—both literally and metaphorically—is shown to be infinitely variable.

Born in Columbia, Missouri, Akinbola is a multidisciplinary Nigerian American artist. On many levels, his work questions and refigures the language used to describe art. He is best known for his “Camouflage” series (2016–present), paintings that do not actually feature any paint on their surfaces. Rather, their two-dimensional compositions consist entirely of durags, worn by members of the Black community for the practical purpose of protecting hair, but also to signify cultural belonging.

Portrait of Anthony Akinbola in front of one of his “Camouflage” paintings. Photo by Cameron Andre. Courtesy of Anthony Akinbola.

Anthony Olubunmi Akinbola
CAMOUFLAGE #105 (Metropolis), 2020
False Flag

As an experiment, Akinbola stapled durags sourced from Black beauty shops to primed canvases, forming explosive constellations of shape and color—paintings of another medium. He began to think of the works as a form of what he calls representational abstraction. “I realized I could use this material because it’s so politically and culturally loaded,” Akinbola said. “But they also give me a whole range of colors to work with, and a formal vocabulary too. They exist in that sweet spot between something that is totally abstract, but also representational.”

Akinbola’s rise over the last few years has been meteoric. It began with a residency at the Anderson Ranch Art Center in 2017. The following year, the artist had his first-ever solo exhibition at the Queens Museum, where his “Camouflage” paintings first became a known entity in the art world. Since his museum debut, Akinbola has exhibited in eight solo shows on three different continents, and participated in residencies and fellowships at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York and Galerie Krinzinger in Vienna.

Detail from Anthony Akinbola’s studio. Courtesy of Anthony Akinbola.

This past year has been abundant with projects and exhibitions. When I spoke with the artist over Zoom in late September, he was in a hotel room in Baltimore, where his work will be included in a group show at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 2023. Akinbola had traveled there from Michigan after the opening of the group exhibition “Unmasking Masculinity for the 21st Century” at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, in which his work is featured. Akinbola expressed looking forward to returning back to his home base in Brooklyn to finally get some rest, but he would be hitting the ground running again with a frame delivery for a few works in progress. This was all on the heels of his New York solo show “Natural Beauty,” which opened at Sean Kelly in early September.

Much like his practice, Akinbola’s path to the art world was unconventional and full of experimentation. He grew up surrounded by artwork at his mother’s shop, which sold African sculptures and wearable art. There, he picked up a sensitivity towards materials. A ready-made artist in the making, Akinbola created his own toys out of objects he found around the house. “My sister taught me how to make these little sculptures and figurines out of foil and I’d use those as toys,” he said. “Keeping the energy I had as a kid is a huge part of what brought me to art.”

Portrait of Anthony Akinbola in his studio. Courtesy of Anthony Akinbola.


But when it was time to leave Missouri for college, art wasn’t on the brain: Akinbola studied media and communications at SUNY Purchase. He became reacquainted with art through a passion for film, as well as through his roommates, who happened to be art students. Through a network of friends, he began to develop an appreciation for conceptual art practices. “I didn’t necessarily have the technical ability with drawing or clay,” Akinbola confessed. “But there was an element of critical thinking that I thought I was good at. It also just felt natural as I thought about objects and what to do with them and how to use them. I liked that kind of play.”

A fascination with found objects and everyday materials has been at the crux of Akinbola’s practice ever since. His durag paintings are just one part of the picture: Akinbola also works consistently with hair brushes, palm oil, and cassava—products that are also ubiquitous in Black communities. Several of his artworks make use of objects associated with Black excess and indulgence. In his 2020 solo exhibition at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Wisconsin, Akinbola installed a Cadillac Escalade in the middle of the gallery floor. At his more recent show at Sean Kelly, a diamond is embedded in one of the walls opposite a durag painting, making visible the complexity that sits underneath the significatory universe of Black culture. For Akinbola, the found object is a mode of investigation, a language for exploring and critiquing commodity culture—particularly the commodification of Black culture.

Anthony Akinbola, installation view of “Magic City” at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and John Michael Kohler Arts Center.

But Akinbola’s use of found objects does more than raise political and cultural questions. The materials he works with, especially the durags, have also galvanized a deep inquiry into color and form. Many of his “Camouflage” paintings are monochrome—arranged entirely in red, yellow, black, or blue. Rich with subtle variations in hue, achieved by sourcing durags from a wide range of suppliers, his compositions are studies in color, leading many of Akinbola’s interlocutors to compare his work to that of Josef Albers or Ad Reinhardt. But for Akinbola, color theory did not start in books or museums: Rather, it started in the communities he knows.

“I think Black people do it naturally,” Akinbola said excitedly, referring to how he became interested in color theory. “I’ve seen dudes in the beauty supply store with two different yellow durags comparing both yellows to that yellow check on their Air Forces to see which one matches better. There is a style and swag to how we exist.” It is this same powerful affinity for visual harmonies that makes viewers linger in front of Akinbola’s paintings, where the everyday stuff of Black life is assembled into fulsome arrays of texture and hues.

The Artsy Vanguard 2022

The Artsy Vanguard is our annual feature recognizing the most promising artists working today. The fifth edition of The Artsy Vanguard features 19 rising talents from across the globe who are poised to become the next great leaders of contemporary art. Explore more of The Artsy Vanguard 2022 and collect works by the artists.

Zoë Hopkins

Header image, from left to right: Anthony Akinbola, “CAMOUFLAGE ‘Oogie Boogie,’” 2022; “Jubilee,” 2021; and detail of “CAMOUFLAGE #050 (Juniper),” 2021. Courtesy of the artist.

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