Bimbola Akinbola’s Postcards From Grief Island

CHICAGO — Grief takes many forms: it can be a caution sign around your heart or a quiet voice that tells you something is irreparably wrong and only you know the expanse of this wrongness. In artist Bimbola Akinbola’s Grief Island, now on view Roman Susan Art Foundation, grief is a solitary place with back-to-back beach chairs and crushed aluminum cans. For Akinbola “Grief Island” is a place of succor and sadness, reserved for mourning and remembrance.

Open since 2012, Roman Susan, only 280 square feet, sits on the ground floor of a flatiron building. The space itself is composed of sharp, diamond-shaped angles, with an expansive storefront window that’s seen over a thousand art exhibitions. In Grief Island, a 400-pound square of sand rests in the gallery’s center. The sand is dotted by crushed cans of “Grief Tonic,” footprints facing in opposite directions, a small palm tree, a red Coleman-brand cooler from the artist’s youth, and two beach chairs whose upholsteries are woven portraits by Akinbola; another palm tree rests in a corner. A postcard carrel and small postbox sit against the window, so visitors can send the artist a card from the island. 

Akinbola’s portraits, based on family photographs, present the artist’s relatives bisected, hidden, and simultaneously highlighted by the crossing of the chair’s woven leather strips. The stark white of a shawl or dress, represented by a white leather strip, partially obscures the deep ochre of an elder’s eyes, but this same contrast of line and color also draws the gaze to the very eyes looking back at the viewer. On both chairs, faces and figures swirl in and out of sight, making it hard to tell who is returning the gaze or whose hand reaches out. Together the sculptural forms of the chair frames and woven leather paintings, all untitled, alongside the absence of text, mimic the eddies of memory during grief.  

Though the show is a response to a period of intense personal mourning in the artist’s life, it’s also achingly universal. When a loved one is lost there is an empty space where they used to belong. These missing beloveds may circle in and out of memory, but can these moments be named? Can we breathe into existence everything they meant to us? Words forever fail. These are private meetings that live within the vaulted arches of each individual’s heart. This is Grief Island

Bimbola Akinbola: Grief Island continues at Roman Susan Art Foundation (1224 West Loyola Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through July 7. The exhibition was organized by the institution.

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