The artist Toyn Onikh Odutola painted intricate portraits of black life

The artist Toyn Onikh Odutola painted intricate portraits of black life

Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

Nigerian-American artist Toyn Onikh Odutola is known for his rich textured portraits of black life, layered with intricate pens, charcoal and pastels.

Born in 1985, Oji Odutola is essentially a storyteller, influenced by the storytelling traditions of her childhood. Her 2017 show at the Whitney Museum, her first solo exhibition in New York, unfolded a dual, interconnected story of two fictional aristocratic families in Nigeria.

Most recently, when the Barbican Center in London closed due to Covid-19 restrictions in March, it was just days before its first exhibition in the UK, “Equalization theory, “was opened. Now, with the postponement of the show, Ojih Odutola has prepared a virtual exhibition for the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York,”Tell me a story, I don’t care if it’s true, “Made mostly from works created while the artist was at home for the past few months.

Ojih Odutola presents a new work, made during the lock, at a virtual show for the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. Credit: Toyin Ojih Odutola

Her still-spotted Barbican exhibition focuses on the creation of myths and features 40 drawings based on an ancient legend set in Nigeria that the artist imagined. Meanwhile, her more intimate virtual show about Jack Sheiman focuses on lonely, free-flowing stories told through images and text.

Here, Ojih Odutola discusses the two exhibitions, his rich study of black identity and how art can be a balm and space for an agency in times of crisis.

Ojih Odutola's 2017 show in Whitney, New York, helped raise her international profile.

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

CNN: Can you see us through what Yours What will the Barbican show look like when it is unveiled?

Toyin Ojih Odutola: Some pieces are seven feet high and some are really, really small. It’s all based on a myth I wrote last year involving an ancient civilization and set on a plateau in the state of Nigeria. It was necessary for me to delve into the visual narrative in a way that is engaging and different and I felt very present.

These drawings are in every drawing and may look like a decorative motif, but in fact the system is working. When you see a picture full of these lines, you see a system that is not spoken, not seen, but is everywhere in the world of these signs. It affects and influences them, but they do not recognize it,, It’s just there. So, of course, it affects everything.

(The exhibition) deals with gender, power, hierarchies, oppression and imperialism in a way that, I hope, once revealed, is very subtle and nuanced and speaks to the insidious nature of systemic oppression.

The Barbican show enabled Ojih Odutola to work on an ambitious scale, mixing large-scale and intimate monochrome works based on an imaginary ancient myth.

The Barbican show enabled Ojih Odutola to work on an ambitious scale, mixing large-scale and intimate monochrome works based on an imaginary ancient myth. Credit: Toyin Ojih Odutola / Barbican

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

The title of the show came to me in February before the block. It was something that felt right and applicable to the times. This is a series of diptychs, independent drawings and independent textual works. These are stories that came to my mind, which was completely new to me because I tend to plan a lot of things. This show was much more introspective.

These stories are anecdotal; they are insulated vignettes. There is not too much context, but just enough information to understand. There is a conversation between the image and the text. In one you meet a figure leaning on a sofa and you can have your own ideas about what this figure thinks – the inside of this moment. Then read the text and go back and forth between the two and form your own meaning.

The spectator activity is an activity. Take a little, go crazy. I hope this is a way to question what you see and read.

Which oral or written traditions related to the myths have influenced you?

I grew up in a household where the speaker was the means. Gathering and hearing someone tell a story is a huge part of Nigerian culture. I also grew up in a house with two incredibly funny parents who like to tell stories about anything. I have always appreciated it. And it wasn’t until I was much older that I realized how valuable it was to have that experience and to have access to it.

When I first started my career, I was just drawing figures and I wasn’t really thinking about a story. But there is a wealth of knowledge that I already have in my own personal history and experience – and I can apply it to a visual story and really help people see the possibilities of figurative work.

Ojih Odutola presents a new work, made during the lock, at a virtual show for the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York.

Ojih Odutola presents a new work, made during the lock, at a virtual show for the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. Credit: Toyin Ojih Odutola

I am strongly influenced by comics and animation. For the Barbican show, engaging in epic mythology was my way of being completely free and creating something from scratch. Unlike “Tell me a story, I don’t care if it’s true”, there is no text (in the Barbican show) – there is no publication for the audience and everything is extraterrestrial and strange. But what I hope is that as they go through this space, they begin to adapt to my visual language.

You often explore the texture and importance of skin in your work. How has this developed with your practice?

Initially, I wanted to come up with a way to visually translate the feeling of the skin. I use wired lines; it’s very layered and I mostly worked with ballpoint pen ink. And then I started to include other drawing materials like charcoal and pastel, and now, more likely, colored pencil and graphite.

Ojih Odutola compares black skin to water, calling it

Ojih Odutola compares black skin to water, calling it “a living surface, a terrain … a place where so much beauty and positivity spreads.” Credit: Toyin Ojih Odutola / Barbican

When I think about the surface of the skin, I think about the work of multimedia artist Ronnie Horn, who uses water as a metaphor for a surface that is ambiguous and constantly changing. I think of the skin in a very similar light. The skin is terrain. This is a landscape on which you project meanings. It has a story.

When I look at black skin, I think of it as a living surface – terrain, construction, projection, but also a place where so much beauty and positivity spreads. It includes so much and holds so much.

After George Floyd’s death, there was so much talk about the black trauma, the images of black people in the media, and how those images spread. How do you think art can play a role at this point?

There is a lot of noise – images can be noisy. But with art it is only you and this work. You are in dialogue with him and there is no right or wrong way to get involved. Art gives people the opportunity to be still, to think and absorb this moment and to try to understand it.

Ojih Odutola wants her art to provide a space through which viewers can reflect and come to their own interpretations.

Ojih Odutola wants her art to provide a space through which viewers can reflect and come to their own interpretations. Credit: Toyin Ojih Odutola

I made a pact with myself, as an image maker, that if I were to contribute images to the multitude of those available on the Internet, I would not show black pain, death or trauma.

This is my choice. And if you’re an artist who does these things, fine. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, but it’s very important to me to provide images and texts that give people something else to engage with, because we already know that trauma and pain are a sad and unfortunate thing that connects black people worldwide.

Blacks are catalysts. In every society of which we have been a part, our culture has left an indelible mark. This is not accidental. That is why we should not always think that we come from a place of absence, that we are powerless. I am not saying that these are not realities. But it is not how we should read each other as a community, as a collective (s) as a diverse, brilliant diaspora.

And as someone who is part of the diaspora, I want to give people space to engage with potential, to engage with our capabilities. Yes, they are afraid of us because they do not know what we are capable of. But we we must not be afraid of what we are capable of.

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