Q&A

Benny Bing's Women of Colour series is an unapologetic celebration of Black beauty

He started painting 3 years ago — and now The Weeknd owns his artwork.

He started painting 3 years ago — and now The Weeknd owns his artwork

Benny Bing. Detail of Ohso, 2016. (Instagram/@bennybing)

I first encountered Benny Bing's work on Instagram, when his vivid colour palette and striking portraits made me quit scrolling through my interminable news feed. It's a common reaction to Bing's work. When I curated an exhibit last year, tied to the opening of my play Other Side of the Game, I included Bing's paintings. Visitors would frequently stop in their tracks when they encountered his larger-than-life portraits.

Bing, born Gbenga Alaga, never attended art school, and he doesn't hesitate to let people know that fact. He began painting just three years ago, after he received brushes and an acrylic paint sent from his wife at Christmas.

Soon after, he made a bold decision. Bing left his 9-to-5 in digital marketing and decided to throw all of his eggs into the often precarious art basket. And that gamble seems to be paying off. His paintings sell for thousands of dollars and he can boast Dave Chappelle and The Weeknd as proud owners of his work.

Instagram has delivered much of Bing's success. When a gallery in Nigeria contacted him through the social media platform, he made his first major sale. It's continued to be one of his primary ways of developing a name and following.

Although he's painted numerous celebrities, without a doubt, his large-scale portraits of everyday Black women have gained him the most attention. Bing creates unapologetically grand odes to faces that have so often been left out of the world of portraiture.

Bing recently closed an exhibition at Toronto's Struck Contemporary where he featured his latest series, Women of Colour. I spoke to him last week over email. Here, he talks about the series, his artistic journey and how branding impacts the creative process.

Tell me about your portrait series. Why did you choose to focus on women of colour?

The Women of Colour series began in January 2017 as a response to the lack of Black female subjects in contemporary art. I decided to create a piece of work to fill that void.

I want to highlight the beauty in Black features.- Benny Bing, artist

I remembered reading a very interesting quote from Dr. Leonard Jeffries, a Black studies professor. He stated, "He who controls the images, controls the esteem." I decided it was my duty to focus on how my art can be used as a tool to change the perception and increase the representation of Black women in contemporary art.

You left a secure job to become a full-time artist. Why did you believe it was time to take this leap of faith?

At that point I had been painting for two years. My exposure was increasing, I had a better understanding of my craft and felt it was time for me to take the next step and focus fully on art.

It was very scary at first. The fear of failure, the fear of inconsistency and so much more creeped in. I decided to follow my heart and [take] the leap. It would be one of the greatest decisions I have made in my life thus far.

Why portraits?

I love exploring the intricate details of faces and the ability to tell different stories through facial emotions.

Additionally, faces are a big indication of the subject's racial background. I want to highlight the beauty in Black features that for centuries have been castigated — such as our beautiful noses, full lips, hair, high cheek bones and beautiful brown eyes.

These features have become integral parts of my paintings. I want the audience to be captivated with an intense positive feeling when looking at my portraits.

How do you determine the colours and shapes that you use in your portraits?

The colours play a very important part in my work. Coming from a marketing background, and knowing the science of colours in human emotion, my use of bright colours is to stir the audience's emotions and stimulate their imagination.

I want the audience to be captivated with an intense positive feeling when looking at my portraits."- Benny Bing, artist

Finding the right colours was key. The recurring colour palette is significant to the collection as each colour has a significant meaning. Purple has the power of allowing us to get in touch with our deeper thoughts and represents the future and dreams while spiritually calming emotions. It has also been the international colour of women.

The use of blue complements by creating trust, peace and tranquility. Blue is also non-threatening and plays a vital role in demolishing the stereotype of the "angry black women."

Finally magenta — this colour is used as an instrument of change and transformation. It helps to release old emotional patterns that block personal development and aid in moving forward.

You didn't go to art school but in the past, you've talked about the importance of mentors. Who have been your mentors? How did they help you develop your craft?

I strongly believe in mentorship because it has had a great impact on my creative discipline. My mentor is Mark Liam Smith, an oil painter from Toronto. I bumped into him at an art store and he was kind enough to mentor me and provide me with the guidance I needed from craftsmanship to networking.

I decided to follow his path and started mentoring two other Toronto artists this year to share ideas and assist with understanding how they can be the best at what they do.

You've talked a lot about the importance of branding in the past, but does your creativity ever get stifled by the aesthetic demands of your particular brand?

In my opinion, branding is very important for establishing uniqueness and consistency in one's work. However, when it comes to my work, I allow my creativity to determine the aesthetics. The brand is the result of my creativity, so it never gets stifled.

Instagram has played a big role in your success. What advice would you give to new artists who want to use social media to support their work?

With social media it is important to keep it simple. Understand your audience and what they react to. A lot of users love to see the creation process. Engage with users and be consistent. Consistency is key.

(This conversation has been edited and condensed.)

Check out these photos from Bing's Women of Colour exhibition.

Benny Bing. Asantewaa, 2018. (Courtesy of the artist)
Benny Bing. Malkia, 2017. (Courtesy of the artist)
Benny Bing. Nana, 2017. (Courtesy of the artist)
Benny Bing. Nefertiti, 2018. (Courtesy of the artist)
Benny Bing. Aminatu, 2017. (Courtesy of the artist)
Benny Bing. Ayaba, 2017. (Courtesy of the artist)

About the Author

Amanda Parris

Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays, watches too many movies and defends Beyonce against all haters. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.

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