How artist Toyin Ojih Odutola crafts intricate stories through an imagined Nigeria

In conversation with , June 14, 2023

Art

Satellite (2021-22)
Satellite (2021-22)

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.”

Foraging (2021-22)
Foraging (2021-22)

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.

Present Space

Your use of intricate mark-making is a distinctive characteristic of your work. In terms of your process of creating a portrait, where do you begin?

Toyin Ojih Odutola

Location can be a guide. For instance, skin is location: how can a portrait become a landscape? Colour is location: how can specific palettes contain story? Because pictures hold various purposes, not necessarily for a portrait, I’m here to map out rhythms and patterns. Intricacy is dependent on engagement. I think I do a lot of markings because I ask a lot of questions.   

Present Space

What inspires whether you use colour, or black and white?

Toyin Ojih Odutola

Tone. I work with pen, pencil, charcoal, and pastel on paper, board, panel, and linen at any given time. Methods shift with tools. My priority is whatever visual dialect expresses the story best.

Vocabulary (2019)
Vocabulary (2019)

Present Space

How does your process of storytelling – or creating stories – work?

Toyin Ojih Odutola

There’s a question I want to understand. The telling happens while figuring the drawings and the story becomes how I present the question to a stranger. 

Present Space

In terms of telling stories and creating back narratives, where do you draw inspiration from? 

Toyin Ojih Odutola

Persistent inspiration comes from history and other arts. Also, the chaotic discord of life. It’s the call and response in your mind. Questions help gauge your relationship with the world and how you may internalise experiences. I’m concerned with how to layer as many divergent ingredients into a scenario as possible to find elegance reflected in textural diversity. I might get obsessive with searching for these elements and crafting the back stories, but mainly it’s to see where it can all go. How layered can I make the questions? What form does the language take? It doesn’t always end up in the final drawing.

The Scientist (2021)
The Scientist (2021)

Present Space

What do you see as the viewer’s role in understanding the stories you construct? Can they create their own narratives in front of your work?

Toyin Ojih Odutola

That’s what I hope for. There’s no role necessarily for the visitor because there are no problems to be solved. On the basis, I’m putting drawings on a wall, but really I’m creating conditions where you have time and space to think. The aim is when you’re reminded you’re more than the sum of what’s happened to you. I want you to lose yourself.

Present Space

You describe yourself not as a portraitist, but as depicting figures made up of a composite of people – what do you look for in the people who use as a reference? Are you drawn to physical features or characteristics, such as the way someone holds themselves, etc?

Toyin Ojih Odutola

I include people and things that might not fit together. The figures and scenes I like to draw have an unknown quality and momentum. Every picture is in the middle of some activity, even when they seem stationary or familiar. 

Groundless II (2021-22)
Groundless II (2021-22)

Present Space

Something that struck me when I saw A Countervailing Theory at the Barbican was the immersive and site-specific nature of the show. Do you see works that form the body of an exhibition as a totality, or as singular works that can be separated from the context of the show?

Toyin Ojih Odutola

I try to consider the distinctive characteristics of a space, despite what it might seem at the onset. What can be gathered from the presentation and what to bring to the space. The drawings always stand alone, but I hold a theme in my head while working on a show. The works may be separated eventually, but they remain connected.

Present Space

Besides the figures in your work, backdrops are often intricately detailed, particularly in To Wander Determined. How important are the spaces in which your figures are depicted?

Toyin Ojih Odutola

I don’t distinguish the foreground/background relationship. Every mark on the picture’s surface works in concert. Every section tells the world you’re creating.

Your Face is a Love Letter (Adeseun) (2021-22)
Your Face is a Love Letter (Adeseun) (2021-22)

Present Space

You’ve previously spoken about your experience as an art student as "incredibly shortsighted” in relation to how blackness was taught and how your work was received in graduate school. Is it important for you to shift the perception of art history for future generations of artists?

Toyin Ojih Odutola

Art is magic when you see yourself in the world a stranger created. That’s what I believe will be cultivated for those we have yet to, or will never know. Meanings of symbols change, but the more diverse the people who see themselves in your art, the more interesting the dialogue. What’s sustained me and been communicated [to me] by people who’ve experienced my work has been generative. I enjoy what’s conjured from that space. These conversations have nothing to do with what I encountered during my education, which is wonderful. I’ve learned through working [that] so much time was stolen on the assumption that how I’m perceived by other people’s shortsightedness has anything to do with my creative responsibility. Every drawing is a document.The parameters of what I create exist in an imaginary Nigeria and for that specificity, I’ll gratefully participate. I'm invested in our engagement with interiority and how my work might be useful in that endeavor.

Groundless (2021)
Groundless (2021)

Art courtesy of Toyin Ojih Odutola at Jack Shainman Gallery

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