Tour: 'Toyin Ojih Odutola: Testing the Name' at SCAD MoA
This past week I flew to Atlanta for a short trip visiting family. One of the highlights of that trip, and there were many, was traveling to Savannah, GA for the day with my parents to see a highly anticipated exhibit. We arrived on the campus of the Savannah College of Art and Design and I was instantly reminded of the site's historical significance. It was once a railway depot, integral to the trade of slaves and commodities throughout the South (Hank Willis Thomas addressed this in his site-specific installations 'Blind Memory'). Many of what appears to be the original structures still exist on the site in some form or another.
And while I was never all that keen on visiting places like Savannah (and the visceral experience of a city steeped in such a heavy and painful history), I feel that visiting this exhibit with my parents had a sort of redeeming quality in my mind. I was able to see the work of an artist who I have admired for some time, experience that with my parents, AND be able to create (this blog and video) from that experience. Ah, the power of art to heal and inspire! Okay, now on to the good stuff.
One of my favorite aspects of Toyin Ojih Odutola: Testing the Name was the space it creates to imagine new histories and new narratives. The exhibit is the second series, in an ongoing story of an aristocratic Nigerian family, and the marriage of two men. The portraits present the fictional Obafemi family, well travelled, with an extensive collection of art (antiquarian to contemporary), correspondence files, and even archaeological findings. The title wall is joined with a letter from the artist (but signed as the Deputy Private Secretary, Udoka House, Lagos) and a large-scale drawing of a handwritten letter from the father of the Omodele clan. I realize that some (or many) visitors will walk away thinking the story of this family to be true, and I actually really like the idea of that.
The portraits themselves are beautiful, larger than life, and oozing with vivid color (quite different from her earlier monochromatic works) and texture (charcoal, pastel, and pencil). It feels like you have walked into the European portrait gallery, except all of the people staring back at you are well dressed, steeped in luxury, and black. The sensation of seeing black people celebrated in the style of traditional portraiture is revelatory and deeply meaningful.
My father (who although artistic in his own right, doesn't usually have much interest in spending the afternoon in an art museum) pulled me over to his favorite piece in the show, First Impressions, to extoll the attention to detail in the freckles on the subject's face. It's the little things the can often leave the most lasting impression on someone, the absolute treat of seeing a portrait of a black woman with freckles hanging in a gallery in Savannah, Georgia. I don't know if this really resonates with anyone reading this, it's not an easy feeling to put into words.
In the past, Toyin has used her peers (ahem, Solange) and her brother as models for portraits, and apart from the self portraits, another face stood out to me. In Some Respite for a Research Fellow, I saw the curator who gave the artist her solo show at the Whitney Museum last fall, and someone I write about quite often here on the blog, Rujeko Hockley.
Now I will speak briefly on two of my favorite pieces. This Side of Paradise struck a chord with me because of the way it captured such an ambiguous mood, that of pensiveness, longing, or just a general malaise. The way the artist is able to capture the ordinary and the mundane so triumphantly is perhaps what elevates the subjects. Chase Quinn writes about the ability of Toyin's work to place the black subject in the center of the universal experience, in a way that is different from the approach of other artists expanding traditional portraiture, such as Kehinde Wiley.
Another piece, which despite its smaller size, is quite striking. It is a tightly-cropped portrait of a man's slightly grimacing expression, the deep and textural blackness of his skin set against a bright colored shirt and a deep blue background. The title of this pieces reads, The Abstraction of a Continent, and it is in my opinion, the most opaque of the portraits, for it's size, color palette, and extreme detail. The sadness captured in the eyes is a hint at the complexity of the identities with which she presents in this exhibit, a running theme throughout.
Toyin Ojih Odutola: Testing the Name is on view at the SCAD Museum of Art through September 9, 2018. Check out the vlog for another look at the exhibit and to see what else I got up to in Savannah. You can read more about Toyin Ojih Odutola on the blog here.