Smiles all round as Alayo Akinkugbe curates show of Black portraiture in London

Alayo Akinkugbe, behind Instagram’s @ablackhistoryofart, on her first solo-curated exhibition, ‘The Whole World Smiles With You’, at London’s Opera Gallery (until 26 June)

Alayo Akinkugbe Adjei TAWIAH Still Got Your Back, 2023 Oil on canvas with sponge Right: Amoako Boafo_Laced Fingers, 2022
Left, Adjei Tawiah, Still Got Your Back, 2023. Right, Amoako Boafo, Laced Fingers, 2022
(Image credit: Left: Adjei Tawiah. Right: Amoako Boafo)

Even a cursory scroll through Alayo Akinkugbe’s Instagram account @ablackhistoryofart will provide valuable insight into art that was – until very recently – kept out of most mainstream galleries. Now, the 23-year-old curator, writer and podcast host is taking her point of view to the gallery wall with ‘The Whole World Smiles With You’ – the first exhibition she has worked on as the sole curator.

‘The Whole World Smiles With You’, curated by Alayo Akinkugbe

Painting of Black man in suit and white hat

Kehinde Wiley, Big Daddy Kane, 2005

(Image credit: Kehinde Wiley)

A survey show at London’s Opera Gallery, it looks at the history of figuration by Black artists from the 1980s till now. Akinkugbe was initially sceptical of the project – partly because of other recent exhibitions with lots of figuration by Black artists, including Ekow Eshun’s recent National Portrait Gallery show, ‘The Time Is Always Now’.

But she has brought her own spin by combining established names with newer up-and-comers. The likes of Chris Ofili and Kehinde Wiley share space with the collages of Jazz Grant, and Thelonious Stokes, a painter from the Southside of Chicago who trained in Florence. 'He puts himself into the paintings and there's one incredible work where he is dressed as a ballerina,' says the curator. 'It reminds me of paintings by Degas but it's a Black man wearing the costume that's normally on a white ballerina.'

Alongside the exhibition, a programme of talks looks at the themes presented, in order 'to open the space to continue these discussions'.

Abstract portrait of Black woman

Kimathi Mafafo, Untitled, 2022

(Image credit: Kimathi Mafafo)

Akinkugbe says there have been moments before where the art establishment has paid more attention to Black artists – as with the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and the Black Arts Movement in the UK in the 1980s. She suggests the particular interest in figurative work now might come back to the reckoning around race following the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.

'There was all this negative imagery, like the horrible video of George Floyd’s murder,' she says. 'These bright, vivid, dignified portraits were like a counterbalance.' This thought process informed this exhibition’s title, based on a Louis Armstrong song – 'There’s this idea when you see a Black smiling face, the whole world smiles with them,' says Akinkugbe.

Portrait of Black woman at table in green dress

John Madu, Doing well with these fine goods, 2022

(Image credit: John Madu)

The curator has divided work into three themes – everyday life, redressing the art canon and caricature, 'looking at the Black body [in ways] that might emphasise or or draw attention to negative stereotypes'. The second theme is one that, as an art history graduate, Akinkugbe finds particularly interesting, pointing to a specific work as an example. 'Awodiya Toluwani repainted Manet’s famous [1863] painting, Olympia, but inverted the race so the courtesan in the front is a Black woman and the servant is a white woman,' she says. 'Suddenly you're confronted with the Blackness of the figure.'

Portrait of man in green suit, with red swirling lines

Kehinde Wiley, Untitled (Easter Realness), 2002, RECTO

(Image credit: Kehinde Wiley)

For Akinkugbe, reactions like this are why art is important – and why seeing pictures by Black artists on the wall of a Mayfair gallery still has significance. '[Art] allows you to inhabit someone else's perspective,' she says. 'For me, that's the most powerful thing about it. Black figuration is important because it's about how Black artists see themselves, imagine themselves and view themselves.'

'The Whole World Smiles With You', curated by Alayo Akinkugbe, runs until 26 June 2024 at the Opera Gallery

Find more of the best London art exhibitions to see this month

Lauren Cochrane is Senior Fashion Writer of The Guardian and contributes to publications including The Face, ELLE, Service95, and Mr Porter. Based in London, she writes about everything from catwalk shows to art exhibitions and pop culture. She is author of The Ten: The Stories Behind the Fashion Classics.