How artist Toyin Ojih Odutola crafts intricate stories through an imagined Nigeria
In conversation with Ellie Brown, June 14, 2023
Art — Art
Working with pastels and chalks to create intricate patterns of markmaking, Toyin Ojih Odutola is one of the most recognisable artists of her generation. While in early work, such as the series The Treatment from 2015 to 2017, the artist used black ballpoint pen and graphite to draw the faces of well-known figures removed from markers of their social status. More recent series have focused on fictional histories of Nigeria.
Ojih Odutola was born in Ife, Nigeria before moving to the United States as a child, growing up in Alabama. In 2011, while still studying for an MFA at the California College of Arts in San Francisco, she exhibited work at the MAPS show at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. For her solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art held between 2017-8, To Wander Determined, Ojih Odutola unveiled a body of work in rich, vivid colours that had a painterly quality to it.
In 2020, Ojih Odutola exhibited a new body of work that was specially commissioned for the Barbican Art Gallery in London. Though the artist had worked on the series prior to the pandemic in early 2020, A Countervailing Theory opened at The Curve gallery in the Barbican in August that year. Ojih Odutola has previously explained the conception for the series as a subversion: both in terms of technique (working with white charcoal, pastel and chalk on black linen canvas) and in terms of the fictional narrative at the centre of what A Countervailing Theory explores.
After its stint in London, A Countervailing Theory was shown at the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art Aalborg in Denmark in 2021 before moving to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C., where the show closed last April. More recently, Ojih Odutola exhibited Satellite, a new body of work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), between September 2022 and January this year. As with many of Ojih Odutola’s series to date, Satellite shows how the artist employs colour, markmaking and composition to communicate fictional narratives that are woven into the works.
When Countervailing Theory opened at the Barbican, it was one of the first exhibitions I saw after the UK’s first lockdown ended. In a press statement for the show, Ojih Odutola explained how, “[walking] into The Curve for the first time (…) having a space unfold as you travel through it, not quite knowing what will come around the corner. [The] possibility [the space] provides to create and exhibit a story one can meander through in real-time [and] how to engage with an audience.”
The artist’s description of how the space is encountered closely resembles how it felt to see A Countervailing Theory when the show opened. There was a tentative atmosphere that hung over the air in The Curve, as fellow visitors (re)negotiated with the gallery space after many months distanced, not just from other people, but also from works of art. And so, standing in close proximity to the 40 pastel, charcoal and chalk drawings that Ojih Odutola had created for the 90-metre long gallery was an enchanting, immersive experience. For the exhibition, Ojih Odutola worked with the composer and musician, Peter Adjaye, who created the soundscape for A Countervailing Theory, to respond to the landscape that the artist has envisioned.
Up close, there was a comfort in seeing the artist’s treatment of the human body – to see the smooth marks with which Ojih Odutola carves out the sculpted flesh of her subjects. On the surface at least, there’s also an intimacy that seemed to radiate through the series. In works like Semblance of Certainty and To See and To Know; Future Lovers (both 2019), the touch of a hand, the glance of an eye or a warm embrace communicates a sense of affection and connection that, in the midst of the pandemic, felt reassuring.
For A Countervailing Theory, Ojih Odutola styled herself as an archaeologist. As the director of the “Jos Plateau Research Initiative” at the University of Ibadan, Ojih Odutola was working in collaboration with the Barbican to present a series of ancient pictorial markings found on black shale rock at the Jos Plateau in Nigeria during mining excavations. And so, A Countervailing Theory is a series that depicts an ancient civilisation in which the Eshu tribe of female warriors rule over the Koba, humanoid men manufactured to work in mines and cultivate food for their superiors. Over the series, Ojih Odutola tells the story of forbidden love, which is initiated when Aldo (an enslaved Koba) speaks truth to Akanke (a female leader of the Eshu).
The distinctions between the Koba and the Eshu are encoded by the artist through the use of different marks, while landscape is used by Ojih Odutola to situate this fictional civilisation within its environment. As the author Zadie Smith wrote of A Countervailing Theory for The New Yorker, “to rule is to believe the land is made in your image, and moreover, that everyone within it submits to you.” While Smith’s words were in reference to works like The Ruling Class (Eshu) (2010), they also fit with Ojih Odutola’s intentions for the series – in seeking to question, and subvert, how narratives are shaped and carried forward in history by those with power.
A Countervailing Theory wasn’t Ojih Odutola’s first investigation into how imagined narratives can be used to question and challenge accepted histories told through the lens of those who exert over others. In To Wander Determined, exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the artist presented a series of work that focussed on the lives of two fictional aristocratic families, partnered through marriage, in an alternative present day Nigeria in which colonisation did not occur. As the artist explained of this narrative in The UmuEze Amara Clan and the House of Obafemi (a monograph released in 2021), “[what] happens if the bodies that once were used as capital were left alone so their stories and ideas instead of their bodies traversed land and sea [...] how would one express the presence of the black figure in the picture then?”
Acting as the Deputy Secretary to the Marquess of UmuEze Amara, TMH Jideofor Emeka, and his husband, Lord Temitope Omodele from the House of Obafemi, Ojih Odutola exhibited the series as a presentation of the families’ private art collections, in partnership with the Whitney. The artist’s approach to take on a fictional role alongside series like that exhibited at the Barbican and the Whitney creates an element of performance and site-specificity, which in turn raises questions, again, about who has the power to shape the way that different histories get told.
Like A Countervailing Theory, Ojih Odutola situates her aristocratic clans within a visually rich landscape. In Surveying the Family Seat (2017), this is quite literally the case, with a figure watching over the rolling hills that are his domain. In other works, like Wall of Ambassadors (2017), Ojih Odutola depicts close-ups from within the home interior, showing framed pictures hung on a luxuriously-papered wall. The family member at the centre is surrounded by predecessors and other relatives – and again, quite literally positions this figure within the context of their aristocratic legacy.
Most recently, Ojih Odutola exhibited Satellite, a body of work consisting of 21 pastel, charcoal and graphite drawings at the SFMOMA. The series marks a departure for the artist in the sense that it looks into the future, rather than assessing how the past has shaped the present day. Set in Eko (the Yourba name for Lagos in Nigeria) in 2050, Ojih Odutola imagines a (not so distant) future, to examine how human life has been shaped by our actions today. It considers, as the press release for the exhibition explains, “the contours of African and other global futures and the new configurations of home, community, and knowledge that may emerge.”
Satellite tells the story of Oluwaseun, who suffers from “self-forgetfulness” - a condition that seems to be common in this future world. To counteract this state of amnesia, Oluwaseun subscribes to a monthly memory-retention service in order to prompt and recover lost memories. Through this programme, a hologram of a figure, Adeseun, appears as an almost ghostly apparition. Over time, the pair forge (new) memories in the confines of Oluwaseun’s tiled apartment. For the exhibition at SFMOMA, Satellite was presented in a space painted of tiles in collaboration with local collective, Twin Walls Murals Company, that resemble those which appear in the works, while performances by voice actors recited the programme logs from the memory retention service that the artist created for the exhibition. In this way, this demonstrates that, in the world of Ojih Odutola, the art itself plays a small part in a much wider exploration of identity, connection, and storytelling that permeates her work. Speaking to Present Space over email, the artist gives an insight into how this world of work is conceived.
Art courtesy of Toyin Ojih Odutola at Jack Shainman Gallery
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