Curled up on the couch in their living room, Tonye Aganaba is gushing over Star Trek. The multidisciplinary artist insists the sci-fi series was ahead of its time in terms of social progressiveness: it had African American women in visible and authoritative roles; it was one of the first to air an interracial kiss; an episode featured a same-sex kiss. For Aganaba, a gender-fluid person of colour, the representation is powerful and important.
Across Aganaba’s living room walls are their paintings—each one portraying a woman from the shoulders up. Painting is something that helps with their fine motor skills, the deterioration of which was an early symptom of the Multiple Sclerosis they were diagnosed with in 2015.
“The disease that I have been…gifted,” Aganaba grins, cradling a mug of coffee, “attacks a couple of things. One, it attacks my memory. Two, it attacks my energy levels. And, three, it is triggered by anxiety. My body just short circuits and behaves in ways that are not easy to deal with. But I find that the more I stay connected to a regular practice of being in front of a canvas or being behind an instrument or singing, the less neurological incidents I have. The difference between me painting and not painting is like — if I don’t do that, I’ll have to take medication, basically, to get the same kind of effect.”
The paintings will be displayed in a collaborative exhibition—Aganaba’s first—#AfroScience, held at the Cheeky Proletariat. “I suffer from imposter syndrome, massively,” they laugh. “I think that anyone can be anything and, by doing an art show, it makes me an artist.”
Aganaba is being modest, because the paintings are beautiful and captivating. Proceeds of any sales will go towards Give Thanks Day—an annual music, art, and community-driven project they’re involved with and reference often. The exhibition also serves as a preview for their new album, Something Comfortable, before its release at the end of the month.
The album is a triumph, both sonically and spiritually. Aganaba describes it as their life’s work: “It’s the thing I’m most proud of. It’s the thing that I know I will stand by forever.” Their husband, Aaron Hamblin—who quickly pops into the room to kiss Aganaba’s forehead—produced and engineered it. He’s also the subject of “Make This House a Home,” one of the standout tracks, that was written while he was away tree planting and Aganaba was missing him.
When looking at their life thus far, Aganaba believes things happen for a reason. Without the diagnosis, they would have never learned to paint. They would have never said yes to having that dinner with their now-husband. They would have never moved to the coast and made this record.
“We make decisions every day,” Aganaba says. “I believe that there are things that are just meant to be. But we decide. I’m grateful for where I’m at and I’m grateful for the fact that, so far, I wake up every day and I decide that I want to take a step forward towards being the kind of person that I want to be.”