6 Questions with Gbenga Akinnagbe
Gbenga Akinnagbe didn’t tap into his creativity until he was an adult. Now it’s his entire vocabulary.
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If you were hooked on HBO’s hit series “The Wire” back in the mid-2000s, you might know Gbenga Akinnagbe, 38, for his role as Chris Partlow, a ruthless killer with a knack for hiding bodies in Baltimore’s urban core.
But today, even as his acting career soldiers on (since “The Wire” wrapped in 2008 he’s appeared on “Madam Secretary,” “The Good Wife” and other shows), the Brooklynite is gaining notoriety for an entirely different creative endeavor: design.
Raised in Maryland by Nigerian parents, Akinnagbe launched his clothing line in 2012. Dubbed Liberated People, it eschews high fashion in favor of politically minded graphics and slogans.
His latest venture is more subtle but arguably more provocative. Enitan Vintage, founded in 2015, reupholsters old American furniture in colorful African prints. The resulting irony sends a powerful message about history and who owns its narrative. Case in point: When a sofa that may trace back to a slaveholder’s plantation is recast in vibrant African fabric, a relic of antebellum craftsmanship is transformed into a conversation about the competing historical perspectives of its time.
We spoke with Akinnagbe about his creative trajectory and how he uses objects to tell old — and new — stories.
Do you have an earliest memory of creativity?
I wish I had, but I didn’t really learn anything about my creative self until adulthood. I grew up in different housing projects, and creativity wasn’t something I saw much of until I was older.
Creativity is absolutely my vocabulary. It’s interesting because “Enitan” means “person of stories.” It’s a name given to women and men in Yoruba culture, and it’s my middle name. Pretty much everything I do now is about stories. I found a vocabulary in storytelling. Oftentimes people will ask me about my acting, and I’ll be surprised because acting is just one sliver of my life. It’s one brush I use to tell a story or communicate to the world or express myself.
DO YOU HAVE A CREATIVE PHILOSOPHY?
I remember reading Twyla Tharp’s “The Creative Habit” years ago, and it spoke about two predominant thoughts about creativity. One: You’re born with it. The other: You can practice and practice and access a creative facility. She emphasized the work: doing work and doing more work.
I think it’s a combination of the two, with the majority of creativity being working at something. We have all these gifts inside us and a well-spent life is spent learning them and working to get them out of us and sharing them.
HOW DID YOU GET INTO THE FURNITURE BUSINESS?
Enitan came about because I travel so much and I love old things. I didn’t start it with the intention of making a company that designs and makes antique vintage furniture. I was looking to purchase a home, and there was a man in my neighborhood who was selling his house. We were going back and forth about the house, but one day we were talking in his basement, and there were these old beautiful pieces [of furniture] that were wasting away. I ended up not buying the house, but I bought the pieces.
There was a chair with the springs popping out, and I thought it was beautiful, but I realized I had to figure out how to fix it and bring it back. I took it to an upholsterer, and he asked me how I wanted it. I said, “Just do it the way it was before.” And he said, “Well, we can’t. It’s old.” I realized I had to make decisions about the future life of this object.
I was looking at traditional upholstery fabrics here, and they weren’t speaking to me. About a year later, I was in South Africa shooting a film and brought some fabric back and used that for the chair. I put it in my living room, and people reacted to it glowingly. They started to see it in its new life, and I liked that. I realized I could do that some more.
YOUR TAGLINE IS “SIT ON A STORY.” WHAT DO YOU WANT CUSTOMERS TO TAKE FROM THAT PHRASE?
What we put in our space and our lives is so much more important than we often give credit for. These pieces, the furniture — they carry energy from the people who made them, the times, the people who owned them subsequently. We can honor these pieces as objects that serve us in our lives. I’ve been learning a lot of amazing things about how I contribute to a space and how the objects I bring into a space affect other people. It all comes down to the stories we want to tell.
ENITAN SEEMS TO BE INSPIRED BY HISTORICAL CLASHES AMONG CULTURES. HOW DO WE MAKE THESE MOMENTS IN TIME TRANSFORMATIVE?
Blues music is like that, right? So many beautiful expressions of pain become part of the culture and become ways of people expressing themselves in joy.
I think a lot about the tones and sentiments of reappropriating and how we’re mixed. In the United States, for example, we have the old American culture and craftsmanship and Victorian culture and craftsmanship, and that of other European cultures, and then we have the people who were brought here enslaved. We all left our marks. Who gets to determine how much of a mark they all leave?
To me, furniture is a beautiful example of how ugly we’ve been and how beautiful we can be, particularly since these are older pieces. They’ve been through those times when people like me were in chains. They carry energy, they carry those moments of history. I love these things that are stamped in time. They remind me of those periods — and I can choose the story now.
HOW DO YOU NURTURE YOUR CREATIVITY?
I try to do as many new things as possible. And I try to do the things I do better. I’ve always been purposeful in the things I do because I want them to have an effect. I go to museums, I try to learn more about design and décor, and it’s fascinating to me. I experiment with what I learn, and I feel more powerful in my own voice: I like this, I don’t like that. Let me experiment with this. I feel empowered to try new things.