Below, we feature two articles about artist Ashton Agbomenou. In the first article, published in the Spring 2012 edition of Lines from the League, Agbomenou writes about his origins at the League and his beginnings as an artist. The second, written in 2018 by Simone Solondz, details Agbomenou’s work as an artist after his time at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). These articles in tandem provide a view into Agbomenou’s artistic practice and trace his journey into the artist he is today.
Spring 2012: Lines from the League
When I arrived at the High School of Art and Design, I’d already made up my mind that I was to become an artist. It was a decision that my parents haven’t taken kindly to.
In school, I no longer just created art to compete with my classmates—now my art was about satisfying the elements and principles of design to the fullest of my capabilities. Art has always been far too complex a subject for me to get a hold on, but I’ve come to understand that although one can learn its techniques, art is something that can’t be taught. I learned this from my illustration teacher, James Harrington.
Learning about past artists who used the techniques for their own unique form of expression, I was able to build my own. Even more to my advantage, Mr. Harrington presented me with the opportunity to apply for and receive the Art Students League’s Prescott scholarship in 2007 and 2009, and in 2011, a Chervenak-Nunnallé scholarship. Over the course of three summers, I was able to study with artists Gary L. Sussman, Anthony Palumbo, and Max Ginsburg.
My education at the League and at the High School of Art and Design strengthened my understanding of the academic arts. Through Mr. Sussman’s sculpture classes I was able to “draw in three dimensions”, these new challenges further developed my understanding of recreating an existing figure. Before continuing sculpting, I needed to develop my sense of anatomy, so I took a course in anatomy drawing with Anthony Palumbo.
In Max Ginsburg’s class I learned much of what I know about painting today. His class not only helped me to better my skills, but it also allowed me to become part of a family of painters who helped one another and shared knowledge fully and willingly. Max’s class every evening felt like dinner with the family. Yet instead of dinner we shared our love for the arts. Aside from my high school accomplishments, Max’s recommendation, along with that of Mr. Harrington, helped me to be accepted to the Rhode Island School of Design.
Once I arrived at RISD, I was able to apply all that I learned in high school and at the League. Being at RISD forced me to break out of my comfort zone and experiment, especially with mediums. Whether it was working in the woodshop or working in gouache, almost every project presented me with a new manner of expressing my thoughts and ideas. Although, I still felt that the League was the best place for me to sustain my academic foundation. All the abstraction at RISD left me feeling confused about where my artistic priorities were. It wasn’t until the summer of 2011, when I met film compositor Scott Minter at The Gallery Small in Red Hook, New York, where I worked as a gallery associate, that I was convinced to pursue film at RISD. That would allow me to continue experimenting in the form of making films as well as building a sturdy foundation with Max Ginsburg’s courses at the League.
I find that most of what I’ve accomplished at RISD has been due to the immersive, hands-on learning environment at the League, where not only the instructors but colleagues are eager to assist someone as untrained as myself. I hope to continue being part of my family at the Art Students League for as long as I can.
February 2018: RISD Faces of Harlem
During a winter residency at Wave Hill, Ashton Agbomenou began a series of portraits informed by fellow African Americans living in Harlem.
Growing up in Harlem as a first-generation American, Ashton Agbomenou 14 FAV watched helplessly as gentrification transformed his neighborhood, pushing people of color further and further into the margins. And with each new incidence of police brutality—coupled with signs of growing racial and economic inequality—the vision of America that inspired his parents to leave their home in Benin, West Africa seemed to grow dimmer.
In late 2017, when President Trump made his infamous remark about immigrants from “shithole countries” in Africa, it was as if a switch flipped inside Agbomenou. “I felt like I needed to respond to this crazy narrative,” he explains. “I wanted to create a series of portraits exploring and celebrating the faces of the African diaspora that would also preserve the cultures of these communities.”
After winning support from the New York Community Trust Van Lier Fellowship, Agbomenou began doing just that during a residency he recently completed at Wave Hill in the Bronx. In February and March he took advantage of free studio space at the cultural center’s bucolic setting—about a two-hour train ride from his current home in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood in Brooklyn—to conduct research and begin working on his new portrait series.
“The most important thing for me was the quiet space,” says Agbomenou. “Looking back at the work I had been doing since leaving RISD—as an artist’s assistant and as a production assistant in the film world—I realized that it wasn’t pointed in any specific direction. Wave Hill gave me the space to meditate on how to move forward.”
Agbomenou’s initial plan was to interview black residents of Harlem about both their changing neighborhood and their sense of their own place in society. “In the early stages, I was reading The Image of the Black in Western Art and was amazed by how limited the black presence is in art history,” he recalls. “I wanted to introduce images of black people into art history—to play some small part in the evolution of western art.”
“I wanted to introduce images of black people into art history—to play some small part in the evolution of western art.”
What actually emerged from those early interviews is two distinct experiences of America: one from African immigrants and their children and another from African Americans whose families have lived in the US for generations. “There is real conflict between the two black communities,” says Agbomenou. “I was reading Isabel Wilkerson’s book about the Great Migration [The Warmth of Other Suns] on my train rides to and from Wave Hill, and it was clear that African Americans had faced similar oppressive forces when they first moved to New York from the South. I wondered how a portrait series might help these groups feel more connected.”
Agbomenou has since been approaching strangers on the streets of Harlem with renewed vigor, photographing them and recording their conversations. Back in the studio, he paints their portraits in oils or watercolors and creates layered collages using his own photographs and pages torn from fashion magazines representing “relics of downtown society.”
At the same time, Agbomenou is working on commissioned portraits in order to fund a new studio space and continuing to assist thriving NYC artists Simone Leigh and Chitra Ganesh, both of whom he met while they were teaching at RISD. And although he isn’t currently pursuing any film projects, he believes that majoring in Film/Animation/Video has made a lasting impact on his sequential approach to narratives and how he prefers to exhibit his paintings.
Beyond the notorious workload, Agbomenou notes that studying at RISD presented other challenges. “Providence was a kind of retreat from the hectic pace of Harlem,” he says, “but navigating between the two realities was difficult.” He relied on support from mentors like Tony Johnson 93 SC, now RISD’s assistant dean of students, and Assistant Professor Andrew Freiband 97 FAV, who, he says, “understood the culture shock” he was facing and encouraged him to connect more with peers.
“The most valuable thing I got from RISD,” Agbomenou concludes, “was being part of such a diverse creative community. Although you’re ultimately accountable for the work you produce, your peers act as your guides, and we were there for one another. We felt that sense of kinship.”
As part of his Van Lier Fellowship, Agbomenou will exhibit the portrait series he’s working on in Wave Hill’s Sunroom Gallery from September 23 through October 27.
High School of Art and Design
Prescott Scholarship- 2007/2009
Chervenak-Nunnalle Scholarship- 2011