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I still see durags in Anthony Olubunmi Akinbola’s work. Durags, of course, have been a prime medium for the artist. Heck, one writer even warily christened Akinbola “The Durag Guy.”1 (For the record, he’s not.) Getting this interpolation out of the way: There were durags aplenty in Akinbola’s solo exhibition, Sweet Tooth, at Night Gallery. In the show, 12 artworks were replete with the material we’ve come to associate with Akinbola. But there was something else at play—a material involution, or shrinkage. In Akinbola’s recent work, including the pieces in this show, durags often appeared simply as strips of fabric; quilt-like assemblages offering up abstract patterns reminiscent of puzzles. These patterned tapestries show no clear mark of their original material form. Still…I see durags.
What happens when the durag is cut up, flattened and stripped of its signifying force? How does this affect our associations with the material? Toni Morrison raised similar concerns, expressing pause toward painful stories that are simplified into “picture[s]” we tell others, running the risk of narratives getting “straightened out,” stretched in a way that makes the memories more “palatable to those who [are]…in a position to alleviate it.” The it here is the realities of Black life in the Americas. The who Morrison implies are the abolitionists who took up these slave autobiographical narratives as reason to end the enslavement of Black people. Morrison suggests that the downside of these “straightened” narratives is that the “emotional display” and depth of Black life gets forgotten—we make space for others at the expense of the “feelings that accompany the picture.”2 I sensed a semblance of this flattened aesthetic in Akinbola’s manipulation of the durag in Sweet Tooth. The artist’s turn away from the overt use of his signature material is a move toward abstraction and color. I’m curious about this shift, which is to say, like Morrison, I wonder who this move is for. And, what feelings and memories within the durag are lost (or gained) in this otherwise straightened advance?
Across the exhibition, I felt a sense of Akinbola’s courage in works like Jesus Forgive Me and I’m a Thot (all works 2023). Both are monochromatic, as many of Akinbola’s previous works have been. But the Twitter-blue durags in Jesus Forgive Me exhibit a tailored finish. Gone are the trailing durag ties we have come to expect in Akinbola’s oeuvre. Instead, he went minimal, stitching smaller strips of durags into a uniform, undulating grid. The same striped motif populates I’m a Thot, this time in shimmery white polyester. And although they are distinct works, in Sweet Tooth, Akinbola installed Jesus Forgive Me and I’m a Thot side-by-side, touching to form a rolling, 30-foot-wide landscape that venerated post-minimalist abstraction. Stripped of any material signifiers of the durag, one could argue that Akinbola resolutely dragged the headwraps from the beauty supply store to a fine arts realm.
Initially, the artist took up the durag as a type of camouflage, a material experiment in concealing what he saw as his “Africanness” for a “Black American” sensibility —he maintained that when wearing the durag, people would “assume [he is] a certain type of Black person based on what they’ve seen in movies or music videos.”3 At the same time, Akinbola identified the double-edged sword of this camouflage: the loss of identity. Wearing the durag opened him up to the “stereotypical threat” of criminalization.4 (Case in point: A charter school in Massachusetts banned durags, accusing the accessory of promoting the “school to prison pipeline” and “gang culture.”5) It seems Akinbola’s choice to reveal or conceal the material in his newer work points back to this double-edged reality. In previous bodies of work, notably CAMOUFLAGE (2016–present), intact durags were quilted together so that lineaments and visible tails identified them for the viewer. For example, in CAMOUFLAGE #074 (Pink Panther) (2021), Akinbola flattened several Pink Oil-toned durags into a grid, tying each set of tails into a series of bows. But what happens when the camouflaged durag approaches abstraction that feels harmonious with painters like Sean Scully, Peter Halley, or Agnes Martin? That’s what’s at stake in Sweet Tooth.
To be fair, this tauter use of the durag was evident in older bodies of work. But in Sweet Tooth, Akinbola has stretched the material to an imperceptible level. Rumspringa, for instance, is a rainbow explosion of rectangular durag strips. Those unfamiliar with the durag might mistake the fabric for pantyhose. Discernment reveals that Akinbola has turned the durag inside out, exposing the center seam. Each durag strip is joined at this seam, producing puckered lines across the gridded canvas. Appearing as such, the durag can’t provide Akinbola with the aforementioned camouflage. In an interview in late 2022, Akinbola said that his work had “stopped becoming durags and it started becoming painting. It became more.”6 I’m taken by Akinbola’s formulation of becoming—how it repeats itself, changes tense, and abandons one organizing principle for another. Still, the durag iterates across motif, material, and identity.
I get the sense Akinbola is less concerned with the visual materializations of camouflage than what the process of becoming might resemble. The artist’s newfound interest in abstraction harkens to writer and art historian Darby English’s argument that abstraction “disrupts and expands our purview of ‘black culture’ precisely by breaking it up, making it harder to survey.”7 I could see how Akinbola’s gradual disavowal of the durag speaks to this avoidance of surveillance. By breaking up the material, Blackness becomes illegible—expansive, even. If the durag is a kind of camouflage, abstraction is a disruptive means for Akinbola to break from those “stereotypical threats” and move toward a more ambiguous mode of image-making. Perhaps this is a different kind of camouflage that Akinbola is embracing—one that expansively welcomes any attendant feelings, whether they are artificially straightened out for the sake of palatability or displaying the vagaries of Black life.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 33.