AdaObinna Moore brings her village to Streetlight Guild

The Columbus artist seeks to inspire with the work on display in her debut exhibition, ‘IJOMAH,’ which opens at the East Side art space on Saturday, Jan. 28.
Detail of "Prayer Warriors" by AdaObinna Moore
Detail of "Prayer Warriors" by AdaObinna MooreCourtesy the artist

Even as AdaObinna Moore worked in solitude creating the paintings for her debut gallery exhibition at Streetlight Guild, she was never alone.

For years, the artist has filled her paintings with figures inspired by friends and family members, many works centered on subjects shown providing comfort, hands gently stroking cheeks, figures locked in embrace.

“It’s almost like a village-type of feel,” Moore said in a late January interview at the East Side space.

One large painting, titled “Prayer Warriors,” takes inspiration from Moore’s grandmother, a native of New Orleans, its vivid colors pulled from Mardi Gras beads gifted to the artist and the stained glass backdrop a nod to the elder’s connection to the church. “She was a Sunday School teacher and the president of the usher board,” Moore said. “She always believed in prayer and always believed in praying over the family, making sure we were protected spiritually and physically.”

This comforting feeling carries throughout the exhibition, dubbed “IJOMAH: The Journey of ADAOBI,” which opens with a reception on Saturday, Jan. 28. (Ijomah, Moore’s maiden name, translates to “safe journey.”) 

And, yes, Moore said, it has indeed been a journey to this point, her art career beginning in earnest when she transferred from Columbus State Community College, where she majored in science, to Ohio State University, which she graduated from in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in art.

Moore spent much of her time at Ohio State experimenting with different styles and forms, initially unable to land on an approach that felt like her own. “I felt like I struggled a lot with the concept of my art, and even my instructor would be like, ‘Well, it’s very good, but your concept is not very strong,’” she said. “And then I found myself trying to fit in with everyone else. I tried realism. And I tried still life. But it was never me.”

It didn’t help, of course, that most of the instruction centered the work of white artists, save for a short lesson on Jean-Michel Basquiat. “We were never taught about African or traditional art,” said Moore, who was introduced to the work of Kehinde Wiley by one professor, but only in conversation outside of class. “It was never part of the main coursework. It was always something private, or self-discovery, for me."

So, on her own time, Moore immersed herself in the work of artists such as Wiley (“I was a fan because I found out he was Nigerian-American, like me”), Julie Mehretu and Kara Walker, which eventually led her to Columbus artists such as Aminah Robinson and Richard Duarte Brown.

Armed with this growing knowledge, Moore cast aside the weight of expectation during her last semester at Ohio State, leaning into her personal history and culture and landing on “Groove to the Music,” one of the paintings included in the exhibit at Streetlight. “I was like, I’m just gonna do me, I’m just gonna do what I want to do, and this painting was part of it,” she said. “Like, this wasn’t even the assignment. But it was me embracing who I am. I like the hand gesture, comforting yourself, being at peace.”

Standing in Streetlight, amid the dozens of paintings by Moore lining the walls on the second floor of the gallery, it’s impossible to not feel this sense of calm, which echoes in the comforting hand gestures depicted in the paintings, the serene expressions on the faces of most of the figures, and in the color palette, which ranges from radiant shades pulled from sunsets to cooling blues that mirror cloudless skies.

A bulk of the paintings are done on wood, a material Moore said she was drawn toward due to its sturdiness and the way paint layers on top of it, giving the works an added texture and dimension. On an even deeper level, Moore said she always had an attraction to wood, and reading about her culture – she’s an ancestor of the Igbo people in Nigeria – she learned members of the tribe would make wooden sculptures as a dedication to ancestors. “And it was like, ‘Oh, wow,’ because I like to dedicate my work to my ancestors and my people who came before me,” she said.

In addition to her own ancestry, Moore continues to pull inspiration from the community of artists in Columbus, experimenting with a series of paintings done on bull leather, which she said stemmed from her fascination with the work of April Sunami and the way she incorporates shells, beads and gemstones into her paintings. There’s also a piece on display at Streetlight done in collaboration with Lance Johnson, who embeds his graffiti-inspired pieces with uplifting messages that fall in line with Moore’s ethos.

“A lot of my works are self-discovery, and they helped me dig deeper into who I am as an artist and who I am as a person,” she said. “And I learned that I’m not just somebody who paints. I’m somebody who inspires people, who wants to uplift and wants to be involved in my community. I’m just like my paintings; I have many layers to me.”

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