Anthony Olubunmi Akinbola Wields Simple Yet Loaded Materials

By extracting meaning from flags, palm oil, bullet shell casings, and now durags, the Nigerian-born artist explores how we fetishize cultural objects.

“Camouflage #078 (Aquafina)” (2021) by Anthony Olubumni Akinbola. Image courtesy of Night Gallery, Los Angeles

Anthony Olubunmi Akinbola makes minimalist-inspired work out of materials loaded with maximal meanings—flags, palm oil, bullet shell casings—to plumb larger issues of identity, respectability, and commodification of African American culture. He’s perhaps best known for Camouflage, an ongoing series of abstract wall-based artworks in which he sews and staples durags on canvas to create richly colored compositions, weaving together his ruminations on skin color with color relativity theory explored by predecessors Ellsworth Kelly, Morris Louis, and Ad Reinhardt. It could be seen as a simple approach, but Akinbola’s apt selection of readymade materials and their multivalent associations nevertheless speaks volumes.

After securing joint representation by Sean Kelly and Night Gallery, the Nigerian-born, Missouri-raised, and Brooklyn-based artist over the weekend opened a second show called “Sweet Tooth”—a multimedia fantasia based on candy and carnivals—at the latter’s Los Angeles outpost through April 29. Here, in a conversation that has been edited and condensed, Akinbola caught up with Surface during installation to talk about discipline, assimilation, and the subversive power of chocolate.

Anthony Olubunmi Akinbola. Photography by Fredrick Nwosu

Why carnivals?

The last couple of shows have been pretty monochromatic. I learned a lot about color through the durags, but now I’m at a point where I’m more comfortable with more elaborate palettes. I’ve been thinking about candy wrappers: things that are alluring, sweet, and indulgent, which lead to conversations around discipline and desire and love. I don’t have a big affinity around the carnival itself—it’s the tent stripes and the design principles around them. 

What did you learn about color from the durags?

I go to different beauty supply stores in different cities, and each durag is a little different. That was my first real association with color relativity. I didn’t go to art school, so I didn’t really understand relativity in the Josef Albers kind of way. But it’s something we all understand, right? When you’re trying to match two different yellows in your closet, or when a guy is trying to match a yellow durag with his sneaker. When they’re created by different brands, it’s like a conversation on relativity that is focused on the readymade.

“Sweet Tooth” includes readymades like claw machines. What can you win from them?

I’m going to put a watch in one for sure. Maybe a roll of money. Desirable objects, obviously, and then some stuff that might be a little more uncanny, like a dried chicken head or rabbit’s foot. Whatever you put in gives the object value—even a crumpled-up drawing, which I may put in there. There’s the aesthetic level of the machine itself, and then the act of being pulled into the gamble. It could be rigged, but you have that desire. It’s a game to be played, that dopamine rush of being in pursuit of something you desire. It’s dealing with self-control.

“Camouflage (Mercury)” (2022) by Anthony Olubumni Akinbola. Image courtesy of Night Gallery, Los Angeles

It’s like advertising. You’ve created “Sweet Tooth”–branded chocolate bars.

I always thought I’d go into branding, but with art I found the freedom to make whatever I wanted. I’ve really leaned into the readymade. I have a truck handing out chocolate bars throughout Los Angeles. The theme is this made-up chocolate company, and the word sweet. I’m getting closer to what I’m trying to have my practice be, not just the paintings but giving people experiences. Drake does elaborate concerts with Lamborghinis. I want that. I want the show to be the show and the work is the work. I’m trying not to trap myself.

Are you worried about kind of becoming The Durag Guy?

It’s just like, damn, maybe people that appreciate those works will appreciate the greater practice. I call the body of work Camouflage because the durag’s history was of assimilation. If I were to put a durag on, maybe my Africanness would be forgotten. There’s something about wearing a durag that’s very Black American. And that’s a whole conversation, what we see as American, what’s in that palette. 

On the flipside, you lose your identity, you become a stereotypical threat. So everything was about being able to take that object and put it in a fucking museum. When it’s in Hauser & Wirth, or Pace, and how are people looking at it? Did they just look at somebody in a durag on their way to the gallery? I’m six years into talking about this work. The intent develops. 

“Camouflage #077 (Franzia)” (2021) by Anthony Olubumni Akinbola. Image courtesy of Night Gallery, Los Angeles

Chocolate is a similar material. There’s an African history and an American history, and the cultural associations with the word and the color. 

Oh my god, yeah. When I first started to think about it, it was about the branding and Willy Wonka. But then I’m just like: oh shit. There’s Congo, there’s the industry. And there’s the shame associated with a sweet tooth. If you put a $20 bill and a chocolate bar in front of a five-year-old, they’re going to take the fucking chocolate, and I think there’s something interesting about it’s more important than money to them. When you get one of these Sweet Tooth bars, will you keep it as an object, or will you eat it? Some people will never even know that the chocolate even says the words on it. 

That’s the genius of marketing, right?

That’s the evil of marketing.  

Well, there’s evil in the art world, too.

Yeah. Pick your poison.

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