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Joy Labinjo, Our histories cling to us at Baltic Gateshead


We’re in Newcastle to see the first of two 1975 gigs we’re going to on this tour. My mum has got us a hotel on the quayside as a birthday present promise that I claimed six months late. We arrived early cos we were worried about our friend storm Dennis so we had a few hours to kill before we could check in. We went to Side Gallery and bought a poster of the Tyne bridge then walked over to the Baltic.


Joy Labinjo’s exhibition Our histories cling to us was made up of two rooms downstairs, with paintings and maybe pastel drawings (? I’m no good at mediums) and they’re So Good!!!!!!! I love I love I love


The paintings are based on old family photos and found photographs of people who are strangers to Labinjo. The colours work in flat planes that come together like a mosaic to skewed faces that don’t feel distorted so much as misremembered — people you’ve only met once, or a memory from when you were a kid that you probably only remember through being told about it by your mum. 


Labinjo’s work feels like being invited to hang out with a friend or partner’s family. They feel like being a plus one to a wedding, where it is exactly how you want a wedding to be. You’re enough on the outside that any rifts are undetectable and everyone’s quirks feel charming. Everyone is pleased to see you. Everyone is in love. Some in a quiet way and some in a way that reaches out and pulls you into a warm and weird group hug. The dancing doesn’t feel awkward or forced but also when you aren’t dancing it doesn’t feel like you’re being rude, you can chat quietly with someone for a bit or get a drink and it won’t feel uneasy. You take group photos for groups you see struggling to fit in a selfie and you say ‘that ones really nice’ as you hand the phone back. You’re glad you came. 


There is one painting that was a bit different — like being 16 and going to your girlfriend’s after school, following her to the kitchen and seeing her mum and her friend chatting. They say hi and you look at the floor and feel shy. It had a sort of stern secrecy to it that makes you feel like you almost heard something you won’t supposed to. Maybe that’s it — maybe I’m not there after school, maybe it’s still at the wedding party, but they’re in an off room that I just stumbled in a bit tipsy. One woman smiles but the other one doesn’t. Sorry, sorry, I say, and I close the door, and try to find someone to ask to show me to the bathroom. 


Background and furniture is sparse, only a few sofas for couples to pose on. Houseplants, however, are featured across the board. The houseplants are brilliant. Painted so gorgeously, adding a little anchor to the people as they otherwise float in brightly coloured space. They make me want to buy a huge plant for my tiny flat. They remind me of the way your family’s houseplants always feel 100% stronger and healthier than your own. I killed all the plants my step grandad gave me for my birthday. Please don’t tell him.

This exhib made me want to; get married, buy new plants, see my family, eat a cocktail sausage from a shit buffet.

Go see it if you like; flipping though old photo albums, really good paintings, love, parties, or excuses to go to the Baltic and go in the fast lift.