Toyin Ojih Odutola: Surface & Blackness
Toyin Ojih Odutola, after the completion of her M.F.A. from California College of the Arts in 2012, published her first monograph entitled, "Alphabet: A Selected Index of Anecdotes and Drawings." This publication acted as an expanded edition of her thesis, featuring the not quite monochromatic ballpoint pen portraits that have come to distinguish her style. These subjects, some of whom are self portraits that Ojih Odutola refers to as her, are captivating for a number of reasons. For starters, they don’t initially seem to communicate much information about the physical characteristics of the subject, perhaps because this information is concealed in a dense and textured black. Furthermore, the subjects seem to expand within the contours of their bodies, as if they are peering out from somewhere deep inside the vastness of the shape. But perhaps most strikingly, the portraits seem to communicate less about the experience of blackness and more about the visual unpacking of blackness as a signifier void of warmth, content, and light. The artist has made a point of highlighting the way her identity as a black woman has unavoidably become central to the conversations around her work. Her experience immigrating from Nigeria to San Francisco and growing up in Alabama have shaped her perspective on otherness and transient identity. In a recent interview for Juxtapoz she stated, “The “othering” of my work didn't bother me, it was how otherness was seen and what it encapsulated that was so confined. The infinite possibility of the imaginary was never included in the questioning of blackness, never even considered.”
Ojih Odutola’s fixation on the surface of the skin instantly challenges the notion of blackness as, first and foremost, racial indicator. The surface accentuates the painstaking mark-making of the artist, revealing the wealth of tonal and formal information presented on the body. This becomes more pronounced in Ojih Odutola’s series of famous white subjects rendered in blackness and, by contrast, in the white charcoal depictions of couples engaged in ambiguous acts of intimacy or violence. These works were featured in To Be Young, Gifted, and Black at Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg, South Africa, curated by Hank Willis Thomas in 2015.
But a major shift has occurred in Ojih Odutola’ work, perhaps the culmination of a long and arduous undertaking within the confines of the monochromatic palette. The artist has introduced contextual spaces and a vivid color palette throughout the image. While she continues to make, “conceptual portraits,” the contextual details have further expanded on the initial intentions of her earlier work, to create a portrait in realism, made uncomfortable by the complexity of the surface. Now, color, composition and surroundings leave more contextual clues to uncover, with the hopes that these clues are universally readable. Speaking on the accessibility of her work through culturally-unspecific visual language, the artist stated:
Once you see that invention is the only reason behind the things we expect to be, that’s when you understand that images can purport so much more than simply a rendering of a subject in a time and place, they can illustrate the notions we have about what an image means and how it is used—and how certain people are seen—even in the realm of the fictive.
This departure from the style of earlier works is apparent in her new series depicting subjects of fictional aristocratic Nigerian families. The first iteration of the series was exhibited in A Matter of Fact at MOAD in San Francisco earlier this year. The second part of the series will be debuted in To Wander Determined, opening at the Whitney Museum on October 20th, the artist’s first solo museum exhibition in New York.