Toyin Ojih ODUTOLA — the artist who reimagines the black experience
Disclaimer: The information provided in this episode comes from multiple sources and is not my scientific studies or discoveries. All authors and sources are credited at the end of this article. Thank you!
Welcome to HerArt podcast, a project for art lovers, especially art created by women. In our third episode, we will talk about Toyin Ojih ODUTOLA — the artist who reimagines the black experience. My name is Nata Andreev and I am going to tell you seven curious facts that you didn’t know about the artist that is best known for her multimedia drawings and works on paper, which explores the malleability of identity and the possibilities in visual story-telling.
Curious Fact #1
Toyin Ojih was born to a Yoruba father and Igbo mother in Ife, Nigeria. At five, she moved with her mother and brother to California to be with her father, who was then teaching and researching chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley. Four years later, the family decamped once more, this time for Huntsville, Alabama.
Curious Fact #2
Growing up, stories were Toyin’s life. A self-professed nerd growing up in the ’90s, she devoured comic books and became obsessed with anime series like Outlaw Star, Gall Force, and* 8 Man After*, and originally aspired to be an illustrator. As she got older, she was exposed to the works of Black writers who “(showed) more options for black stories,” which left an indelible mark: She has James Baldwin’s signature tattooed on her right hand and Octavia Butler’s (“The OG”) on her left.
Curious Fact #3
Interested in the topography of skin, Odutola has a distinctive style of mark-making using only basic drawing materials, such as ballpoint pens, pencils, pastels and charcoal. This signature technique involves building up of layers on the page, through blending and shading with the highest level of detail, creating compositions that reinvent and reinterpret the traditions of portraiture. Ojih Odutola credits the development of her style from using pen, which holds a special significance through its function as a writing tool, as her work is also akin to fiction. She often spends months crafting narratives that unfold through a series of artworks like the chapters of a book.
Curious Fact #4
Toyin moved to New York in 2013, and her rise has been meteoric: museum exhibitions, four shows at Jack Shainman Gallery, and inclusion in Manifesta 12, the European nomadic biennial. There’s a waiting list for her drawings, some of which startle and perplex viewers. Her 2015 exhibition at Shainman’s included The Treatment, portrait heads of 43 prominent white men (Prince Charles, Leonardo Di Caprio, J. Edgar Hoover, Martin Amis, Picasso, Benedict Cumberbatch) who have been robbed of their whiteness (that is, their “importance”) because their faces are black, rendered in many layers of lustrous ballpoint-pen ink.
Curious Fact #5
The act of storytelling has long been an integral aspect of Ojih Odutola’s drawings. Previous series have seen the artist weave complex fictions set in Nigeria, where she was born. Her first solo exhibition To Wander Determined at the Whitney Museum, New York in October 2017. The drawings — rich and colorful portraits, still lifes and group scenes — traced the stories of two aristocratic Nigerian families, brought together by the marriage of TMH Jideofor Emeka and Temitope Omodele, the former from a family of longstanding nobility, the latter from a family of new money. Their world is an alternate reality — very much imagined since the two men would not be able to marry in Nigeria, where homosexuality is illegal — which Ojih Odutola was immersed in for years. She herself was their Deputy Private Secretary and wrote the exhibition press releases.
Curious Fact #6
The works in Tell Me A Story, I Don’t Care If It’s True were created during the last few months, as the world has suffered a pandemic and countries have momentarily entered states of lockdown. It’s a period of time that has also been defined by protests against racism, which have unfolded globally following the murder of George Floyd at the end of May. “I sincerely hope these works bring you all solace, a moment of respite, and space to ruminate — quietly, steadily,” Ojih Odutola has written on Instagram. “I hope it helps you all gather, to heal, to find the beauty in our fleeting moments despite the pain and trauma, and in the end, some semblance of peace in the midst of this cruel madness.”
Curious Fact #7
To Ojih Odutola, the expectation that her work is biographical “is an imperialist position.” It’s white audiences saying, “‘Okay. I don’t understand what you are. Make it into a bite-sized form so that I can digest it. Make it more palatable for my mind and my tongue,’” she said. “Yes, I was born in Nigeria. Yes, my family is Yoruba and Igbo,” she continued. “These are things that I start from. They are not an endpoint. I know I keep talking about my biography as an obfuscation — because it is.” Still, she refuses to squeeze herself into a corner of imposed absolutes by rejecting biographical artistic ties altogether.
Thank you so much for listening to the seventh episode of season three, of HerArt podcast — a project for art lovers, especially art created by women. If you want to follow more of what I do, find me on Facebook and Instagram. And don’t forget to tune in next month, when I am going to tell you about Laura KNIGHT — the first woman to be elected to full membership of the Royal Academy of Arts. This is the fifth episode I am recording during COVID-19. I hope everyone is safe and takes care of themselves and their loved ones. And don’t forget BLACK LIVES MATTER!