Toyin Ojih Odutola is a visual artist consumed by the literary. Her drawings of figures are often cloaked in narrative allusions, and the build-up of marks on the page becomes a language which can be read. After all, she recently participated in the seventeenth annual “Poetry and the Creative Mind” celebration put on by the Academy of American Poets, and one of her early monochromatic drawings graces the cover of a new edition of George Schuyler’s 1931 satire Black No More. In several interviews she discusses her love of reading and the wide range of that love, from Takehiko Inoue’s graphic novels to John Berger’s philosophical meditations. In one such interview, with Sylvie Rosokoff, she recalls her teenaged love of Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice, and the wish she felt to “be a part of this kind of story without my blackness getting in the way of that,” asking the pressing question: “Can I be a Jane Eyre without being a black Jane Eyre?”1 By eliding the literary with the visual in her powerful portraits, Ojih Odutola questions authorship itself and its fraught relationship to the ways we interpret works of art.
Ojih Odutola was born in 1985 in Ife, Nigeria, and moved to the U.S. with her family in 1990. Her mother, who had a degree in comparative literature, encouraged her to practice English by watching Disney movies and reading comic books. Ojih Odutola thus became acquainted not only with the English language but also with certain visual codes attached to American vernacular. After she received her BA from the University of Alabama at Huntsville, Ojih Odutola attended graduate school at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, where she worked primarily in ball-point pen, a democratic tool that allowed her to build up marks on the page and to articulate a language enamored with the layering of black ink.
Ojih Odutola’s early works primarily depict black figures floating in a white non-space. The skin is specific, carefully tended to in rich tones of black that seemingly vibrate off the page. The rest of the details, the figure’s hair or shirt, are sketched in as if to remind the viewer that she is looking at a drawing. Ojih Odutola would often use her brothers or sometimes herself as models, mostly out of convenience; this was an easy way to work out a new process of making or, according to her, to think “about the story within the marks.”2 Yet, she found critical interpretations of these works to be too narrow, too focused on her biography: “My otherness often precedes the content of the work, almost like a cloud before the viewer,” she explains.3 In order to expand notions about identity, Ojih Odutola turned to her imagination, creating a fictive world where characters could live in distinct settings. The viewer would have to see beyond the artist’s biography and, by piecing together the visual cues in the work, create her own story.
Ojih Odutola’s latest body of work, focused on here and shown in various forms in several exhibitions over the past four years, is preceded by a fictional press release written by the “Deputy Private Secretary” and signed by Ojih Odutola, describing the origins of the drawings: a series of private portraits that derive from the collection of two noble Nigerian families, the UmuEze Amara clan and the house of Obafemi. The story of these characters allowed Ojih Odutola a new kind of freedom. In creating a made-up world, she could complicate so often one-dimensional notions of identity and representation: “Incorporating the fictive is what allowed me to expand not only the definition of blackness, but to expand what blackness can contain, what blackness can reveal, and where it can go.”4
In these large, life-size drawings, Ojih Odutola abandons the ball-point pen for soft pastels and charcoal. The figures feature richly textured skin from brown to black. The area that surrounds the figures is now filled in with landscapes of patterns: rolling hillsides, grasses blowing in the wind, the crisscross of a window. Take, for instance, First Night at Boarding School (2017), which features a young boy covered up to his neck in a coverlet, patterned in black and white, that takes up most of the frame. The undulations of the coverlet mimic the landscape, mountains that appear behind an ornately designed window; the head of the boy is most firmly filled in with Ojih Odutola’s signature marks. The title of the work indicates the boy’s class, whereas the downward cast of his eyes opens up a field of interpretation: tired, lonely, and homesick are just a few adjectives that come to mind.
Ojih Odutola is not interested in describing these characters, per se, so much as she is in creating a variety of possibilities, a new reality that acts according to her as a “scaffolding for the imaginary to emerge, proliferate, and roam.”5 The invented narrative in Toyin Ojih Odutola’s work allows her a sense of play and the freedom to examine blackness without her work being solely tied to her own life experience. “The beauty of injecting the fictive is how it can be a part of you, but also its own separate entity,” she explains. “As an artist of color, it’s a luxury because your otherness is no longer central to the conversation. It’s something else in the story. It’s a starting point.”6
Copyright © Toyin Ojih Odutola. Images appear courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
1. Sylvie Rosokoff, “Toyin Ojih Odutola,” Girls at Library, February 2018, https://www.girlsatlibrary.com/interviews/toyin-ojih-odutola.
2. Rosokoff, “Toyin Ojih Odutola.”
3. Osman Can Yerebakan, “There Is No Story That Is Not True: Interview with Toyin Ojih Odutola, Paris Review, 27 September 2018, https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/09/27/there-is-no-story-that-is-not-true-an-interview-with-toyin-ojih-odutola/.
4. Rosokoff, “Toyin Ojih Odutola.”
5. Kristin Farr, “Toyin Ojih Odutola: Infinite Possibility,” Juxtapoze, November 2017, https://www.juxtapoz.com/news/magazine/features/behind-the-cover-toyin-ojih-odutola/.
6. Rosokoff, “Toyin Ojih Odutola.”