An Interview with Tunji Adeniyi-Jones
Tunji Adeniyi-Jones is a quickly emerging artist based on New York City. He deals with the concept of the ancient history of West Africa and mythology on his paintings by using the combination of intense color and curvaceous of the figure. Tunji received his BFA in Fine Art from Oxford University and his MFA in Painting/printmaking from The Yale School of Art. Born in England to Nigerian parents Tunji has spent a great deal of time between London and Lagos. This cultural duplicity is at the core of his practice. Through painting, sculpture, printmaking, and collage, Tunji attempts to articulate the contemporary aesthetic of the African diaspora, through the lens of European history.
Jiyong Sim: What was the decisive motivation or event that led to beginning your artistic career?
Tunji Adeniyi-Jones: I’ve always been passionate about painting and drawing. I studied fine art and art history for my undergraduate degree. Then I went on to study painting at the graduate level, so pursuing an artistic career seemed like the natural progression after finishing my education. I’m especially grateful for the support and encouragement that I received throughout my education though. Without that, I definitely wouldn’t have felt as ready to embark on this journey.
Jiyong Sim: What is the most significant aspect of your art, and how do you describe your art?
Tunji Adeniyi-Jones: I was born in the UK to Nigerian parents, and I currently live in New York. So I’d say that my work is an expression of this dual cultural heritage and experience. I am extremely proud of my Nigerian heritage, and I am equally grateful for my British upbringing. The combination of these two cultures, each having their own rich and expansive art history, has influenced me from a very young age. Moving to America has added another layer of complexity to this perspective, and I have 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.
”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.”
Jiyong Sim: How do you deal with the concept of the ancient history of West Africa and mythology in a point of visual metaphor? And what’s your point about the relationship between cultural identity and expression of artwork?
Tunji Adeniyi-Jones: 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. 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.
Jiyong Sim: What is curvaceous of figure suggested to the viewer?
Tunji Adeniyi-Jones: 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 unifying 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 vigor.
Equally one of the most impressive characteristics of any West African sculpture is the form and shape of each object. Body proportions are exaggerated, elongated, extended, and magnified with dramatic effect. Whether life-size or miniature these sculptures convey a memorable sense of personality and spirit, so I strive to capture the same physical expression and presence in my paintings.
Jiyong Sim: What do you think about the element of narrative that derived from the figures?
Tunji Adeniyi-Jones: There are several narratives surrounding the figures in my paintings. I like to think of them as theatrical characters in an elaborately choreographed performance. Most of these themes are inspired by classical West African folklore and history, but ultimately I want the subjects in my paintings to be open to all manner of interpretation. A lot of the figures share ambiguous and androgynous features, so it’s often unclear whether you’re seeing a series of characters in repetition or divergence. This element of mystique is a narrative in and of itself; so my hope is to provide a slightly open-ended storyline for the viewer to explore and play around with.
Jiyong Sim: Where do you get inspiration for your art?
Tunji Adeniyi-Jones: I draw a great deal of inspiration from my Yoruba heritage, and I try to incorporate as many of these traditional practices and customs into my work as possible. I am interested in how these sacred philosophies and conventions still permeate West African culture today. Although I don’t practice the Yoruba religion, I am fully invested in familiarizing myself with its teachings and history.
During my studies in the UK, I was struck by the work of David Hockney, Chris Ofili, and Francis Bacon. Alongside this, I began to familiarize myself with several pioneering Nigerian artists like Ben Enwonwu and Bruce Onobrakpeya. Once I moved to America I discovered the work of Bob Thompson, Aaron Douglas, Kerry James Marshall, and several other painters who directly addressed perceptions of the black body in relation to the history of painting. This breadth of influence has deeply informed the development of my own visual lexicon. So overall I’d say that my background, my upbringing, and my experience of different cultures through travel inspire me.
Jiyong Sim: Does your work comment upon current social or political issues? Alternatively, do you prefer to do so with your future work?
Tunji Adeniyi-Jones: Yes, of course, my work offers a valuable insight into the expansive and ever-changing consciousness of the African Diaspora. By placing classical West African history on a par with ancient Greek and Roman history, I am actively engaging with postcolonial theory and practice. As I briefly mentioned earlier, my work addresses the origin of problematic terms like ‘primitivism’ and the troubling colonial history between Europe and Africa. Furthermore, I am deeply fascinated by the intersection between European modernist painting and traditional West African sculpture, as the former could not have existed without the latter. This kind of historical interrelation is especially significant to me because, as a British Nigerian, I can claim ownership over both sides of the transaction.
Jiyong Sim: How do you choose your color choice as an element of the expression?
Tunji Adeniyi-Jones: My compositions tend to consist of a body in a large field of colour or rich vegetation. I like to use this colour field to emphasize motion flowing in and around the figure. Equally, I’ve found that foliage, through very delicate rendering, can achieve a similar sense of fluidity and motion. This process of using leaves and vines to emulate the curves and shape of the body is also inspired by designs printed on Dutch wax fabric. These fabrics have their own complex cross-cultural history, and I use their densely coloured patterns as a strong point of reference.
Jiyong Sim: What is your point that your art uniquely conveys to the public?
Tunji Adeniyi-Jones: I’d say that my work offers a unique perspective on figurative painting. Drawing inspiration from so many different histories and cultural experiences has given me a breadth of ideas to unpack and explore. Combining a Western Education with traditional West African inheritance to produce something new and exciting!
Jiyong Sim: What would be the next project for your art series?
Tunji Adeniyi-Jones: Currently, I’m working towards a solo exhibition at Nicelle Beauchene Gallery. For this upcoming show, I’d like to push the scale and ambition of my work, in the hope of creating a more immersive and engaging visual experience.
BY JIYONG SIM
JIYONG IS A KOREAN-AMERICAN ARTIST BASED IN NYC