Artist Toyin Ojih Odutola draws a complex black life portrait

Artist Toyin Ojih Odutola draws a complex black life portrait

Writer CNN Jacques Palumbo

The Nigerian-American painter Toyin Ojih Odutola is known for his rich black portraits of life, layered by intricate ballpoint pens, charcoal and pastels.

Ojih Odutola was born in 1985, and the storyteller is fundamentally influenced by his childhood narrative tradition. Her 2017 exhibition at the Whitney Museum was her first solo exhibition in New York, showing a double, interconnected narrative about two fictional aristocratic families in Nigeria.

Recently, due to restrictions on Covid-19 in March, when the Barbican Center in London closed in March, it was only a few days before her first exhibition in the UK, “Countervailing Theory“Originally scheduled to open. Now, with the delay of the exhibition, Ojih Odutola held a virtual exhibition for the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York,”Tell me a story, i don’t care if it is true“, mainly made by works created by the artist at home in the past few months.

Ojih Odutola will display the new works made during the lock-up in a virtual exhibition at Jack Sharman Gallery in New York. Credit: Toyota (Toyin Ojih Odutola)

Her unseen Barbican exhibition is centered on mythology and displays 40 drawings of ancient legends from Nigeria. The painter imagines himself. At the same time, her more intimate virtual performance for Jack Shainman focuses on the loneliness and free flow of stories told through images and text.

Here, Ojih Odutola discussed two exhibitions, her rich exploration of black identity and how art became a balm and agency space in times of crisis.

Ojih Odutola's 2017 fashion show in Whitney, New York, enhanced her international profile.

Ojih Odutola’s 2017 fashion show in Whitney, New York, enhanced her international profile. Credit: Beth Wilkinson / Toyin Ojih Odutola

CNN: Can you take us step by step Your Will Barbican’s performance be presented at the unveiling?

Toyin Ojih Odutola: Some fragments are 7 feet high and some are very small. All this is based on a myth that I wrote last year. It involves an ancient civilization and is set in a plateau state in central Nigeria. For me, it is necessary to delve into the visual narrative in a fascinating and distinctive way, and it feels very real.

There are these stripes in each figure, they may look like decorative patterns, but in fact, it is a system that works. When you see a figure completely filled with these lines, you will see a system that has not been said or seen, but it is everywhere in the world of these characters. It affects and affects them, but they don’t admit. Right there. Therefore, it certainly affects everything.

(Exhibition) Involving gender, power, hierarchy, oppression and imperialism. I hope this approach will be very subtle and subtle once it is made public, and talk about the insidious nature of systemic oppression.

The Barbican exhibition gives Ojih Odutola the opportunity to carry out ambitious work, mixing old and mythical large and intimate monochrome works.

The Barbican exhibition gives Ojih Odutola the opportunity to carry out ambitious work, mixing old and mythical large and intimate monochrome works. Credit: Toyin Ojih Odutola/Barbican

How did your new virtual exhibition “Tell me a story, I don’t care if it is true”?

The title of the show was given to me before it was locked in February. This is something that feels right and applies to the time. It is a series of double paintings, independent drawings and independent text works. These are the stories that come to my mind, which are very new to me because I tend to plan many things. The show is more introspective.

These stories are anecdotes. They are isolated episodes. There is not much context, but only enough information to understand. A conversation is taking place between the picture and the text. In one of them, you meet a character leaning on the sofa, and you may have some idea of ​​the character’s thoughts-the internality of the moment. Then, you read the text and walk back and forth between the two to form your own meaning.

Rating is an activity. Take a moment and take a picture. I hope this is a way to question what you see and hear.

Which oral or written traditions related to myth influenced you?

I grew up in a family in a lecture hall. Gathering everywhere and listening to others tell stories is an important part of Nigerian culture. I also grew up in a house with two very interesting parents who like to talk about anything. I have always cherished. It wasn’t until I grew up that I realized how valuable it is to have this experience and to gain this experience.

When I first started my career, I was just drawing numbers without really thinking about narrative. However, in my personal history and experience, I already have a wealth of knowledge, and can apply it to visual narratives, and really help people see the possibility of figurative works.

Ojih Odutola will display the new works made during the lock-up in a virtual exhibition at Jack Sharman Gallery in New York.

Ojih Odutola will display the new works made during the lock-up in a virtual exhibition at Jack Sharman Gallery in New York. Credit: Toyota (Toyin Ojih Odutola)

I am deeply influenced by manga and animation. In Barbican performances, interacting with epic myths is how I feel completely free and create from scratch. Unlike “Tell me a story, I don’t care if it’s true”, there is no text (on Barbican)-no audience reference, everything is extraordinary and strange But I hope that when they walk through that space, they will begin to adapt to my visual language.

You often explore the texture and meaning of the skin at work. How has this evolved with your practice?

Initially, I wanted to find a way to intuitively translate the feeling of the skin. I use sinusoids; it is very layered, and I mainly do ballpoint pen ink works. Then I started adding other drawing materials, such as charcoal and pastels, and now, recently, colored pencils and graphite.

Ojih Odutola compared black skin with water, calling it

Ojih Odutola compared black skin to water and called it “mercury surface, terrain…a beautiful and active place so prosperous”. Credit: Toyin Ojih Odutola/Barbican

When I think of the surface of the skin, I think of the work of multimedia artist Roni Horn, Who uses water as a metaphor For an ambiguous and constantly changing surface. I think about the skin from a very similar angle. The skin is a terrain. This is the landscape where you project meaning. It has its own history.

When I look at the dark skin, I think of it as a mercury surface-topography, structure, projection, and a place where such prosperity is beautiful and positive. It contains many things, and has so many things.

After the death of George Floyd, there was extensive discussion about the trauma of black people, the portrayal of black people in the media, and how these images were spread. What do you think about the role of art at this time?

The noise is loud-the image may be noisy. But with art, only you and this work. You are talking to it, there is no right or wrong way to participate. Art provides an opportunity for people to stay still, think and digest this moment and try to understand it.

Ojih Odutola wants her work to provide a space where viewers can reflect on and draw their own explanations.

Ojih Odutola wants her work to provide a space where viewers can reflect on and draw their own explanations. Credit: Toyota (Toyin Ojih Odutola)

As an image producer, I have concluded an agreement with myself that if I contribute images to a large number of images on the Internet, then I will not show black pain, death or trauma.

That is my choice. If you are an artist dealing with these things, that’s good. I’m not saying whether this is right or wrong, but for me, it’s very important for me to provide images and text that can bring other benefits to people, because we already know that trauma and pain are the sadness and misfortune that connects black people around the world Things.

Black people are catalysts. In every society in which we participate, our culture has left an indelible mark. That was no accident. Therefore, we should not always think that we come from a place where we are lacking and we are powerless. I am not saying that these are not reality. But this is not how we should understand ourselves as a community, a collective (and) a diverse, outstanding diaspora.

As a diaspora, I want to provide people with space to interact with potential and our capabilities. Yes, they are afraid of us because they do not know our capabilities. but we We should not be afraid of our ability.

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