Chinaza Agbor is a master at drawing from her own experience when making art. As the daughter of Nigerian migrants to the United States, Texan-born Agbor's upbringing in the American South has had a ruling influence on how she's often thought of black female identity, especially when looked at through the prism of personal encounters.
Reflecting on these motifs, Agbor's UK debut solo exhibition, Kindness and Hospitality from a Foreigner at Cob Gallery, amalgamates a series of painting and sculptural works that continue her broader art mission in dissecting how economic mobility and class shape the black experience. Vivid colour combinations see solarised patterns and colours contrast with silk-like luminous skin tones, creating surrealistic compositions that purposefully illuminate certain bodily features. As a result, psychological portraits of identity strained between the imperatives of conformity and difference arise, which is where Agbor's own experience of 'learning to love oneself anew as a black woman' is embedded within.
Explaining this notion to SHOWstudio, Agbor said, '[learning to love oneself anew] is an experience that I believe is quintessential to black girlhood/womanhood. Society has very clear lines on what constitutes as femininity and beauty, and black women do not fit into these social frames. In fact, we are regarded as non-prototypical for our gender. I feel like my entire youth has been spent trying to force my way into these boxes, desperate to be seen as a stereotypical woman; as feminine, as delicate, as someone worthy of love.'
The themes of childhood and nostalgia are ever-present in the show, also wrapped up in Agbor's depiction of a Texan sunset, which can be found at the centre of the exhibition. The garish blaze spits out a blend of fiery yellows and pinks and is scored by the rattle and buzz of crickets and cicadas. Despite the landscape's familiarity, it exists only in memory as these insects are now muted by climate change, as is the landscape itself. For Agbor, this awareness is part of confronting a childhood resistant to any straightforward nostalgia, a conflicted experience in a place that has changed in unnerving ways.
Continuing to reflect on how the past has influenced her thought process today, Agbor states:
'When everyone reinstates that you, as the way you're born, will never count as beautiful... my teenage rebellion was my pursuit of beauty and love. That pursuit has often left me feeling separated from myself, not quite recognising who I was and what I stood for. And each and every time, I've had to crawl back to myself and learn to love who I am and what I look like. Piecing together my self-esteem brick by brick until something else comes to knock it down. I suppose it's a bit sad, but I believe there is power in always coming back to yourself and learning to love yourself again.'
For Agbor, nostalgia doesn't inform identity; it contributes to past ideas of one, fracturing them more each time a memory is relived. In other parts of the exhibit, artists like surrealist prodigy Meret Oppenheim are referenced through literal interpretations of hospitality, seen through an afro weave-clad tea set that fuses the idea of homemaking and how the ideas of hospitality and foreignness depend upon one another for their full meaning.
Kindness and Hospitality From A Stranger by Chinaza Agbor will be open to the public at Cob Gallery between 25 November and 16 December.