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November 21, 2021

Spotlight on @ABlackHistoryofArt's Alayo Akinkugbe

Article by Alayo Akinkugbe & newcube

3 minutes read

We had the chance to chat with Alayo Akinkugbe whose acclaimed Instagram account ABlackHistoryofArt celebrates Black artists, sitters, curators and thinkers who were typically overlooked in art history. In the current context of generalized uncertainty, Alayo is one who is fighting the good fight and she is undeniably contributing to positive changes within our cultural landscape. We sat with her for a casual chat where she spoke about her journey and her humble ambitions. 

Hi Alayo, it is a pleasure to speak with you. Tell us a little more about yourself, how did you first step into the world of art?

Hi! I am a graduate of History of Art at the University of Cambridge and I created the Instagram account @ABlackHistoryofArt almost two years ago. My exposure to art really began at school when I studied History of Art in my final two years and has developed over the past three years whilst studying for my BA. 

We know a part of your current academic research is about the overlooked artist Belkis Ayón. How did you come to discover her? 

When I started ABlackHistoryofArt, a friend sent me many recommendations of artists and artworks to research for personal interest and to include on the page. Belkis Ayón’s print Mi Alma y yo te Queremos (1993) was one of them and I was so struck by it that I decided to further research her work in my degree.

In February 2020, you created your Instagram account @ABlackHistoryofArt. What inspired you and what were some memorable highlights since its inception?

I created the Instagram account as a response to my frustration at the lack of Black representation in my History of Art degree, with the intention of self-educating by researching artists that I knew would be excluded from my learning at university. I really did not expect it to garner such a large audience, but I am so grateful that people are interested in diversifying their knowledge of art – I have received many messages over the months from people saying that they don’t remember studying any Black artists at school or at university. The highlights of the first year of ABlackHistoryofArt have been the opportunities to write for publications and galleries, and a big one for me was being recommended as 1 of 5 art accounts to follow by The New York Times in November 2020– this really gave me the conviction that what I’m doing with the account has merit and is of interest to many more people than I had first imagined. 

Red flame cradled in outline of hands in pink against black backdrop
Molly Kent, Untitled (close up), 2021

We cannot agree more and we are grateful for the content you shared with us. What are your hopes for ABlackHistoryofArt? What would you like to  achieve with this platform in the coming years?

I hope that the account can help  create change in art history curriculums and, of course, in the art world at large. There is a real lack of Black representation in the art/museum world behind the scenes – in the past few years this has become better, but there is still a lot of work to be done, and I hope that I can somehow be a part of this progression and help to catalyze it.

As an academic researcher, do you feel we can overcome the lack of resources in the canon of art history for Black artists? And has this changed or affected your research? 

I think now that I have spent a year doing this research, I can safely say that there are plenty of resources available about Black artists, contrary to what I had thought at the beginning – having only ever received a Eurocentric model of art history in my formal education. All the more reason to broaden the art history curriculums across the world!

In your opinion, what was for you the turning point in the History of Art by Black Artists? 

I think it’s important to be aware that there isn’t a single history or narrative of Black art, just as there isn’t a single history of “white art”, or single history of art at all. The idea behind my page is not to posit a separate history of Black art; it is to show that art by Black artists, and art with Black sitters, constitutes part of the wider body of art history, and it’s about time we started seeing it as such. The complexity of history, and the fact that it isn’t a single line of progression, and that histories exist simultaneously across the world makes this question impossible to answer without pinning down the “history of Black art” to a single location or ignoring the multifaceted stories of art made by Black people.

How do you feel about the rising interest in the works of Black artists?

I am glad that there is increasing interest in the works of Black artists, but only for the right reasons. I do not agree with any notion that suggests that art created by Black people is a trend, or that art by Black artists is in a separate category to that made by artists of any other race. On my page, I am highlighting exclusively Black artists because they have been repeatedly excluded from my education – definitely not to suggest there is something inherently similar about all art made by Black people. It is important to move away from a single narrative of Blackness. This quote by Destinee Ross-Sutton sums up my opinion on this, ‘some say the appreciation of Black art is a trend, but Black art in itself is no more a trend than “white art.” It’s part of world culture, of art history, and history is being made every day. Black art should be appreciated for its contribution to humanity and history.’

Generally speaking, how do you see the world of art changing after Covid?

I hope for increased focus on inclusion and for a conscious reflection on the issues within our world that were brought to the forefront during this pandemic – I hope that the countless institutions, galleries etc. who made promises and statements of support for Black lives in June 2020 will keep to their word as we come out of this.

On a more personal note, do you collect art? If you could collect one artist, who would it be?

Not yet! Really dreaming here, but probably Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.

Lynette is definitely a dream acquisition for us too. And who would be one curator or art historian you look up to?

Definitely Okwui Enwezor who was a very highly acclaimed curator, and was also a fellow Nigerian. He sadly passed away in 2019 – his work is a great source of inspiration for me.

Yes! As Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America, an exhibition originally conceived by Okwui Enwezor just opened at the New Museum in New York, we all remember how instrumental and visionary Enwezor was to the global art world. Finally, as a social media shout out, who would be your dream artist, curator, collector or person to do a social media partnership with?

Kimberly Drew aka @museummammy – I really look up to her and admire all the work she does in the US.

Thank you so much for your time Alayo, we wish you continued success and we hope for a day when museums, institutions and collectors expand their art acquisitions and cultural landscapes responsibly and move beyond any sort of formal or identity stigmas. And to end this chat, here is a selection of Alayo’s favorite artworks by newcube artists.

Sleeping man with blue face nestled against woman who is awake
Reihaneh Hosseini, I'm Still Awake, 2020
Back view of a nude woman stepping into her bathtub
LukeWarm by Shantel Miller
Red flame cradled in outline of hands in pink against black backdrop
Untitled by Molly Kent
The Meeting Place by Shantel Miller
Sleeping man with blue face nestled against woman who is awake
Reihaneh Hosseini, I'm Still Awake, 2020
Back view of a nude woman stepping into her bathtub
LukeWarm by Shantel Miller

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Shantel MillerPainting$7,000


Shantel Miller

Shantel Miller

Boston, MA

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