We catch up with artist Chinaza Agbor to discuss her unconventional artistic background and why, for her, home is nomadic.
Last updated on
Jun 1, 2022 10:55
Chinaza Agbor is the latest artist to participate in our This Is Our Home project. We photographed her work “Peace and My Things” outside her home in South London, then caught up with Chinaza to discuss her unconventional artistic background and why, for her, home is nomadic.
So, where did you grow up?
I’m from Dallas, Texas. I did my undergrad in biology, psychology and history at the University of North Texas. I realised in the last year of my degree that I wanted to do art. I made the decision and that was it.
Were you scared?
Yes! But I was also sure of my decision. All my life, I knew that whatever I wanted to do, I could make it happen. Though obviously, when I wished for something, I would then take the steps to make it happen!
There are practical considerations that hang over you, like making enough money to support yourself, but I’ve been very lucky. I've been able to make a living off people enjoying my art.
You have a highly scientific background, from your undergraduate degree in biology. Did you feel like that was a strength, or were you nervous about transitioning into painting?
When I went to the Royal College of Arts, everyone around me was older, with extensive educations and careers in the arts - so I didn’t feel like my background in biology was a strength at all. It wasn’t until recently that I started incorporating biological aspects into my art. That's when I realised there is strength in having a non-traditional background - it gives you the freedom to explore different things.
I looked at my peers and realised that it’s so easy to be boxed in by ideas about the “right” way to do things. While it can be useful to know about the technical principles of art, you can also learn that stuff anytime you want to. Creativity comes from the soul and that can't be taught.
Now, I know that my scientific background is a strength, but 21-year-old me did not think that. I wish I could go back and tell her to take pride in it. It‘s been a journey to get to this point, but I'm very proud of myself and my background now.
How would you say your biological background is starting to inform your work?
I got long Covid and that’s when I really started exploring biology in my work. I was studying and trying to figure out what was wrong with me because doctors weren't listening to me. That started translating into my work: I started cutting out things I was seeing in my research - like pictures of mould and bacteria - and layering it into my work. I haven’t shared it yet but I’m excited to. I'm very proud of it because it just feels very authentically “me”.
Of course, my past work was also “me”. But, as a black artist, I feel like it’s easy to be put in a box of figure painting. Most black artists are taught: you either have to be a figurative painter or abstract. That's it. I didn't want to be that - I wanted to explore what was me.
Do you feel like that pressure towards figurative painting is about representation of Black people in the art world?
I think figure painting is more digestible for the art audience - which is usually a white demographic - so black artists tend to create work like that because they know it’s what the galleries want and it will sell. If you’re not careful, you can end up feeling pretty unhappy and unfulfilled as an artist.
I had to go back to my roots - experimenting with spray paint, pencils, and oil pastels like I did in high school - because I was starting to forget that I used to really enjoy creating, it used to be what brought me peace, and I had to find that peace again.
Do you find that your art still provides this sense of peace now that it’s your main source of income?
There’s a whole new pressure on my creativity now. As an artist, you don't know when your next paycheck is coming in, so you have to consider whether a piece will sell or not. That can make you reluctant to be experimental with your work.
You have to choose between spending time on pieces that will sell and spending time on experimental pieces - pieces just for you. I always have to find that balance.
Do you work at home or do you have a studio space where you like to work?
I do have a studio space, it’s in Croydon and it’s really nice!
I’m currently working at home because when I have a flare up I can't really stand for long periods of time. Before I got Covid, I could pull all nighters and paint for hours at a time, but unfortunately I’m not back to full strength yet, so I'm usually set up on my couch and I have to make small pieces.
So Covid has changed the way that you work?
Definitely. I’ve always been a person who didn't really have to pay attention to how I was treating my body. Now I have to really consider what goes into my body and not demand too much from it.
I was in a depressed state for a while, because I just couldn't accept that my life had changed. I kept trying to do all the things I used to do - all while struggling with chronic illness - and it was really tough. I'm still trying to get used to it.
Do you feel like spending more time there has impacted how you feel about your home?
Yes - lockdown actually incentivised me to move. I was living in a small room in London with my boyfriend Max in March 2020, but I felt like Covid wasn’t going anywhere fast so we started saving money to move to a bigger place. Luckily, we found a very cheap place in South London. We’re both students so we needed somewhere affordable, and we're still trying to furnish it and make it feel more like home. The dog has more furniture than we do at the moment!
What does home mean to you?
For me, home is crazy but filled with love. I love noise; I love coming home to find my boyfriend playing music and Zaza, our dog, running around and barking; I love laughing with my loved ones; I love all those things going on at the same time. Every time I go home to Texas everyone knows I’m back because I’m so loud!
But I don't feel like I have to settle down my roots in one place - home can be anywhere I want it to be. When I can afford to, there are so many different places I want to see and live in. I feel like new work comes from new environments, and staying in one place is how you stay the same.
You’ve said your work is all about capitalism. Through that lens, what do you think about home ownership?
I say my work is about capitalism because none of us have ever experienced anything outside of capitalism. Everything I have created and everything I’ve suffered through negatively - as a black woman, as a black artist - has been as part of a capitalist system.
It helps you realise why society is this way it is. Especially as a black woman, when you’ve literally been the currency and then suddenly you're not, but there are still some deep intrinsic roots of that system within society. People like to deny those things and pretend it's not there anymore, but it's still there. I like to bring that to life in my work.
I can't get away from participating in capitalism. I want to contribute to society and raise awareness about issues that matter to me, and in order to do those things I need to be financially stable. So I don't mind the idea of home ownership but will it be possible for me? I hope so, I really, really hope so, but we’ll see.
Do you feel like art and protest are linked in your work?
Yes, I feel like it’s intrinsic. As an artist, you should always be speaking up, that is our role
Often artists feel like you have to display traumatic images in order to protest something, but it doesn't have to be that way. At some point you have to question: who is this for? Is it for a white audience? What are they going to take away from a piece? Is it reinforcing unhelpful narratives?
I believe the intrinsic value of art is based in protest, and I feel like that's what I always try to do when I make art - I’m always protesting something.
“I, like so many other Black women, have realised I we have every reason to be unhappy, and yet we still actively choose not to. And that sliver of happiness is so beautiful, so rich and pure, and it’s something I strive to capture in my artworks.”
Why do you think it’s so important to capture that joy?
I think when you have every valid reason to be mad, then being hateful becomes the easiest thing to do. I think there's power in being happy and strength in expressing love.
I don't want everything I’ve been through - the abuse, the suffering - to change who I am as a human being or to change how I treat people. Anger is only motivating for a short time but it becomes so draining after a while.
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