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A plus A Gallery, Venice
28.04.2023 — 15.07.2023

A plus A gallery is pleased to announce Gymnasia, the first solo exhibition in Italy by Monilola Olayemi Ilupeju. The Nigerian-American artist presents an installation with new paintings, drawings, and sculptures created between her studio in Berlin and her residency in Venice.

Inspired by the many contradictions and double meanings of the gymnasium, Ilupeju transforms the gallery into an arena with nude figures and iron sculptures that reference ancient and modern gym apparatuses. Embodying varying postures of exertion and recovery, the bodies are painted on loose canvas and paper. Once dried, they are cut out, released from the parameters of the rectangle and free to interact with the pliable armatures and architecture of the gallery space. In this way, the relationship between the figures and the environment becomes sharper, and depending on the way the canvas curves or folds, different visual possibilities for the paintings emerge.

Gymnasia is the plural of ‘gymnasium’, which is derived from ‘gumnazo’, meaning exercise, and ‘gumnos’, meaning naked or loin-clothed. A gymnasium is at once a setting for play, sensual enjoyment, and collective experimentation. Yet, it is also a place rife with immense physical suffering and competition, where bodies are put through a series of predetermined tests and often pushed beyond their limits. In the current socio-political landscape, the gymnasium then becomes a metaphor for the world, in which marginalized bodies must find and forge creative and nimble ways to move within it to survive. Resisting a single static form, the cut out figures stretch into poetic and at times violent shapes, urging the viewer to examine the snaky and inventive characteristics of distortion as they are projected onto bodies and proliferate throughout society.   

Partially motivated by the artist’s personal struggle with body image and self perception, the project encourages a generative defamiliarization of the body and is part of a broader, interdisciplinary practice that aims to create new ways of perceiving ourselves, our histories, and the world around us. At times playful and others abject, Ilupeju’s painted figures are a vehicle for thinking about the ways art and its inherent ambiguities can confront these political and inner distortions. The paintings in the installation are accompanied by drawings from the artist’s ongoing Body Print series, in which she uses charcoal to capture the contours of her body, facial expressions, and orgasms. In this grounding gesture, internal sensations and emotions are prioritized above all.  

How do we shape the world as it shapes us? What stories about desire, family lineage, or trauma can be told in a single posture? How can art act as a corrective for distorted perception or numbed intuition? What links the single experience of a body to broader entanglements of oppression and liberation?

These are questions to which the artist ceaselessly seeks answers, manifesting in her works all the beauty, discomfort, tension, and torment enclosed within the perimeters of  bodies, the only means of knowing and facing the world around us. In Gymnasia, the formal and social elements of Monilola Olayemi Ilupeju’s work come together, guiding the viewer into these pockets of friction with humor and generosity.

Selected cut out paintings:


List of Works

Installation Images: Clelia Cadamuro