“The AGO used to feel so out of reach”: This creator is bringing the African diaspora to the city’s biggest art gallery
When Josef Adamu was 24 years old, he launched a creative agency out of his mom’s basement. Now, the Nigerian Canadian artist is making a triumphant return to the city with his new exhibit, Feels Like Home
In 2017, when a 24-year-old Josef Adamu launched Sunday School in the basement of his mom’s Brampton home, he wasn’t sure if anyone would pay him to tell stories about the Black diaspora. Six years later, the upstart company, which specializes in art directing and brand campaigns, has far surpassed his initial expectations—its work has been displayed in New York, London, Oakland and Miami. Earlier this month, Sunday School made a triumphant return to Adamu’s home city with its first major Toronto show, Feels like Home, which opened at the AGO on May 6. The exhibit, co-presented by the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival, is made up of three series: The Hair Appointment by Jeremy Rodney-Hall, Jump Ball by Toronto photographer O’shane Howard and Joshua Kissi, and Ten Toes Down by Kreshonna Keane. Adamu, who is Nigerian Canadian, spoke to us about representing the city’s Black community at its biggest art institution.
How did you become interested in art?
It wasn’t a linear path. When I was high school in the late 2000s, I was really into sports. But, when I was in Grade 11, my family moved to Calgary briefly for my dad’s work. I was away from everything I’d ever known. So I watched a lot of music videos from artists like Missy Elliott and Busta Rhymes, and I kept up with runway shows and street culture through Tumblr. That’s when I developed an appetite for fashion—I started buying the latest Nikes and Jordans and got curious about what people wore in the 1970s and ’80s.
Outside of the Tumblr era, what were some of your early projects?
I used to go the thrift store, style myself and get a photographer friend to shoot me on Queen Street or in the Mississauga Valley and share the photos on social media. For a while, I wanted to work at a modelling agency, but I never had the tall, lanky look they wanted. I didn’t fit the mould. It was the same for TV and film—Black people are a minority in those spaces, and I didn’t have the industry connections other people had. After I graduated from U of T in 2016, where I studied digital enterprise management, I was living with my mom. I wanted to represent the Black diaspora community—I didn’t see enough of that in Toronto. So that’s when I founded Sunday School. Luckily, running it out of my mom’s basement at first meant that I didn’t have to pay rent. I was able to fund it through side jobs and the help of friends who would work with me for free.
Related: Twelve striking photos that capture life in 1970s and ’80s Toronto
Is there a story behind the name?
My dad was a youth minister. When I was younger, we’d be at church every weekend in North York as part of this community of Africans. The kids would have their own little Sunday class, where we spoke about God and how our weeks had been and what we were struggling with. Even without the religious connotation, something about calling it Sunday School felt very empowering. We’re an art education platform—we’re teaching people about a culture they sometimes know nothing about.
What made you want to focus on the Black diaspora?
I was born and raised by Nigerian parents in Toronto, and there’s some tension in that. In Canada, I felt very Nigerian. I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to engage with the culture because we didn’t have the money to visit often. But, when I was in Nigeria, my accent and inability to speak the dialect made me feel very Canadian. This work lets me bridge that gap, and it shows people back home that we’re still incorporating the culture into our daily lives.
Feels Like Home is the first major Sunday School project in Toronto. What’s that been like?
It’s surreal. I grew up in North York and Etobicoke, way north of downtown—I rarely went south of Yorkdale. The AGO just felt so out of reach and unapproachable, like I didn’t belong there. Thousands of kids are in that same position. They don’t feel marketed to or know that it’s free if you’re under 25. I really want people from my community to be there, and not just during my exhibit but throughout the year. I want basketball camps coming through; I want hairstylists to feel like they belong.
Does this series feel like a step in the right direction?
It was monumental to see my mom and my African aunties coming to see it in their traditional attire. They came a couple of weeks before launch for a photoshoot. I told them to be themselves—I didn’t want them to feel like they had to wear westernized clothing. Even though Toronto is one of the most diverse cities in the world, seeing Black people taking up space in institutions like the AGO isn’t the norm. When we’re minorities in white-dominated environments, we often water down the way we speak or dress or what we eat. So this was a big deal.
One of the photo series, Ten Toes Down, looks at ballet, another historically white-dominated institution.
Yes. The model, Jordan Peterson, never felt truly included as a young dancer. Even the stockings and pointe shoes are pink, made to match white skin. Jordan’s shoes had to be covered in brown and black makeup just so they would match her—it wasn’t until recently that some companies started making ones for different skin tones.
You mentioned that you’ve always been into sports—does Jump Ball hit close to home?
Definitely. The series shows a young person who’s connected to Western culture through sports—wearing durags and Air Jordans—but also in touch with their African origins. I’ve played basketball my whole life. Seeing African representation in the NBA and hearing players get called by Senegalese or Ivorian last names—it made me feel included.
Where do you play basketball when you’re in Toronto?
I don’t play as much as I should. When I do, I like to be outdoors. I still watch it passionately, though. I like the Sacramento Kings a lot, especially De’Aaron Fox.
What’s your favourite photo in the exhibit?
There’s one I love in Jump Ball of a mom sitting behind all these basketball trophies. She left the civil war in South Sudan, and now her son is on the LA Lakers. She’s sitting among accomplishments that are a result of her sacrifices. And everyone loves the largest photo in The Hair Appointment, of the auntie braiding her young niece’s hair. A lot of Black girls and women can relate to that: the night before school, many of them sit in their moms’ laps to get their hair put into cornrows. It might be a little tedious or even painful, but they wouldn’t change it for anything. It’s done out of love.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.