Meet Alayo Akinkugbe, the Cambridge student spotlighting Black artists on Instagram

‘These are Black artists. No one’s talking about them, so I’m going to talk about them.’

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CN: Discussion of racial violence, specifically the death of George Floyd

19th February 2020. Just over a month before the UK national lockdown is announced, and Cambridge Art History student Alayo Akinkugbe posts Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s ‘Portrait of Madeleine’ on her newly created Instagram account @ablackhistoryofart.

Fast forward to almost a year later, and she has now got over 51,000 followers, has spoken on the Great Women Artists podcast, “taken-over” the National Portrait Gallery’s Instagram, and been featured in the New York Times and British Vogue.

“Born out of the frustration at the lack of Black representation” in her degree, Alayo’s account showcases Black artists and creators and spans across media, continents and centuries. Furthermore, she’s recently expanded into the realm of podcasts, and is planning interviews celebrating Black creativity.

The Tab Cambridge spoke to Nigerian-born Alayo about the success of her account, Black art history’s place in Cambridge and diversity on her course curriculum.

Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s ‘Portrait of Madeleine’ (1800), formerly known as ‘Portrait d’une Négresse’ (Photo credits: Alayo Akinkugbe via Instagram)

‘I want to curate exhibitions that challenge the status quo’

Alayo is currently applying for a Master’s in Curation, a decision inspired by the Tate Modern’s Osei Bonsu and the Met’s Denise Murell. There are parallels between Alayo’s account and what she aims to achieve in a future in curation. In this digital “form of curating”, Alayo identifies what is important to her:

  1. “Not relating everything to the artist’s race”

She discusses how too often race defines the lens by which an artist is appreciated, which is something we should move beyond: “Once they’re on the page, you know they’re Black, and we can get past that” to instead focus upon what “they’re communicating and why they’re amazing.”

  1. “Moving away from Eurocentrism”

Alayo wants to showcase “Black artists anywhere in the diaspora.” From showcasing the Latin American perspective, to challenging the concept of the African monolith, she aims to represent all areas of experience. For her, history “is not a line. It’s so many different things happening at once.”

  1. “Showcasing a range of media”

She is also concerned with how, in contemporary art, paintings of “Black people are ‘in’ right now because you can very obviously see the diversity.” She addresses this “trend” by asking “what about artists working in other media?”, and posting pictures on her account of “abstract or installation works that you can’t obviously see their race in.”

Yinka Shonibare’s ‘Butterfly Kid (girl) II’ (Photo credits: Alayo Akinkugbe via Instagram)

‘Race in general in Cambridge – difficult. Talking about Black art history – not as difficult’

We move onto discussing her own experiences in Cambridge, from projecting Black art in a white dominated space, to her course.

Started in lockdown, Alayo’s Instagram feels “very very separate to my life at Cambridge.” She explains how “I’ve always found my relationship with race in Cambridge very very hard.”

Her experiences in first year have meant that she hasn’t “felt comfortable talking to people about issues to do with racism because it’s so white dominated and I’m likely to get shut down.” She reflects that “I think it was more difficult before George Floyd’s death.”

She considers how Black history of art relates to her Cambridge experience: “Within Cambridge itself, I don’t know where Black history of art has a place.”

In contrast, Alayo describes that discussing Black art history in her account is “not as difficult.” Through @ablackhistoryofart, she celebrates “overlooked Black artists, sitters, curators and thinkers”, and addresses the decolonisation of museums.

She also features Black achievement outside of art. Alongside images of the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, her story a few days ago displayed images of the Vice-Presidential Inauguration of Kamala Harris, and the first ever US National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman.

‘Yes, I’m Black. Yes, I’m doing Black history of art, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t like all art’

She is keen to highlight as huge a range of art as possible: “I think it’s great that I’m learning the traditional history, but I think it’s important that we are aware that this isn’t the full story of art.”

Returning to thoughts of Cambridge, Alayo considers: “I guess Black Art History has some place in the History of Art Department.” Though Alayo can clearly “see all the flaws with our degree” – for example, the lack of Black representation in her first year course, which prompted her to start the account – but she believes that “it’s one of the better ones trying to change.”

She has already made an impact within the course, with her first-year dissertation on a pre-Raphaelite drawing of the Black sitter Fanny Eaton inspiring a lecturer to include it in a subsequent first year class.

Alayo has also pushed for change around her degree as a member of Decolonise Art History and Architecture. Following the group’s 2017 open letter, post-colonial theory is now taught as part of the History of Art degree in a second year core module, and the department has received guest lecturers like Janine Sytsma, a specialist in contemporary African art. Furthermore, optional modules this year included Latin American, Chinese and Russian art as well as the Early Renaissance from a Global Perspective.

Most recently, the Decolonise AHA group have acquired support from the university’s Diversity Fund to host events, such as an online talk from Osei Bonsu, Paul Goodwin and Evan Ifekoya. For Alayo, the group provides “space outside of the degree to broaden your mind to a new history.”

Tarsila do Amaral’s ‘A Negra [The Black Woman]’ (1923) (Photo credits: Alayo Akinkugbe via Instagram)

‘High profile? Haha!’

Lastly, we focused upon the incredible success of her account (even if she was surprised at the use of my term “high profile”). Alayo has been mentioned in countless publications including the New York Times and has “taken-over” prominent Instagram accounts, like that of the National Portrait Gallery.

When asked about her favourite experiences through @ablackhistoryofart, she immediately spoke of her interview and Instagram takeover of Katy Hessel’s The Great Women Artists podcast: “I listened to that podcast a couple of months before in awe and lov[ed] it” and it was “what led to everything else.”

She also spoke of her recent participation in the Gucci Pioneers of the Past project, alongside the other Black creators Osei Bonsu, Renata Cherlise and Theophilus Imani. In collaboration with Gucci and The North Face, they featured in Stance Podcast, before having their own self-portraits made into a collage by Jazz Grant.

Jazz Grant’s ‘The North Face x Gucci: Pioneers of the Past’ (2021) (Photo credits: Alayo Akinkugbe via Instagram)

In the podcast, Alayo addressed the tendency for interpreting “narratives of suffering in the Black figure”, the narrative portrayed “sometimes can just be joy or a neutral face.” She reflected that, coincidentally, “in all of our self-portraits none of us are smiling”, there’s “just blank faces.”

She reflects finally on the Black figure in art: “Just because the image doesn’t appear to be celebrating a Black figure, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t.”

Well I, for one, can’t wait to see how Alayo Akinkugbe will “challenge the status quo” next.

You can follow Alayo’s work on Instagram @ablackhistoryofart.

Featured image credits: Alayo Akinkugbe 

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