Two dozen ornate antique chairs upholstered in densely patterned Ankara, Shweshwe and Malian mud cloth ring the dining room of the actor Gbenga Akinnagbe’s Bedford-Stuyvesant brownstone, as though primed for a Pan-African conclave’s formal dinner party. But really, it looks like this most of the time, because the dining room doubles as the stockroom for Enitan Vintage, Akinnagbe’s three-year-old furniture business, in which he restores baroque settees and wingbacks of Western provenance, then re-dresses them primarily using West African Dutch wax fabrics.
Enitan Vintage started after Akinnagbe, who has appeared on television in “The Wire” and “The Deuce” and is currently making his Broadway debut as Tom Robinson in Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” was house hunting in Brooklyn and happened upon a tattered armchair languishing in a damp basement. The actor passed on the property but bought the piece, which set him on a course of upholstery education. It wasn’t until he was filming “Deep Tour” in South Africa a year later that he found a purple-patterned fabric he liked, which he brought to New York to integrate into his rescued chair. Akinnagbe realised he enjoyed the finished piece nearly as much as the process, but the leap to entrepreneurship was more of a soft skip. “I’m Nigerian,” he says, “so everything is just shy of being a business already.” He often sources pieces and fabrics while on jobs throughout the world; after filming “Independence Day: Resurgence” in Albuquerque a few years ago, Akinnagbe declined an offer to travel with the film’s director, Roland Emmerich, on his private jet back to Los Angeles in order to go antiquing. He’s since picked up hand-dyed adire in Nigeria and midcentury chairs in Oklahoma.
Enitan Vintage is ostensibly a direct-to-consumer furniture company, but its concept tips it more in the direction of art. “Enitan,” which is one of Akinnagbe’s middle names, describes a “person with a story” in Yoruba culture; indeed, his Hepplewhite shield backs and Eastlake parlour armchairs of the 18th and 19th centuries speak of the violent continuum of imperialism and oppression. Their new upholstery does as well: Dutch wax fabrics have been accepted as a symbol of African culture since at least the 1960s, but they are, in fact, the product of a long history of colonialism. Originally a mechanical reproduction of Indonesian batik textiles made in the Netherlands and sold in West Africa, they were embraced in the market stalls of Accra, Ghana, and Lomé, Togo, in the 1950s. By covering antique British, Danish and French chairs in these materials, Akinnagbe is reappropriating that appropriation.
In their historical splicing, Enitan pieces also conjure the work of the contemporary British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, who has used similar textiles to wrap libraries of the Western literary canon. The motifs in Akinnagbe’s chairs, as in Shonibare’s work, are potent: They’re icons of pride, if you assume they’re domestic products, or totems of postcolonial globalisation, if you recognise they’re not. “There’s beauty in the clash between the two,” Akkinagbe says.
That sort of crosscutting also surfaces in Sorkin’s modernisation of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which widens the falsely accused Robinson’s agency, excavating him from set dressing to moral fulcrum; Akinnagbe plays him with furrowed poise. “When [Harper] Lee wrote it [in 1960], it was relevant, and it’s relevant now,” he says. “We continue to be haunted by our past.
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