The artist Toyin Ojih Odutola drew intricate portraits of the lives of blacks

He wrote Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

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

Born in 1985, Ojih Odutola is basically a narrator, influenced by the narrative traditions of her childhood. Her 2017 exhibition at the Whitney Museum, her first solo exhibition in New York City, developed a double, interconnected narrative of two fictional noble families in Nigeria.

More recently, when the Barbican Center in London closed due to a Covid-19 restriction in March, it was just days before the first exhibition in the UK, “Equalizing theory, “set to open. Now, with a delayed exhibition, Ojih Odutola has put together a virtual exhibition for New York’s Jack Shainman Gallery,”Tell me a story, I don’t care if it’s true, “made primarily from works created while the artist has been at home in recent months.

Ojih Odutola exhibits new works, created during the lock, in a virtual exhibition for the New York gallery Jack Shainman. Credit: Toyin Ojih Odutola

Her still-seen Barbie show focuses on creating myths and features 40 drawings based on an ancient legend, set in Nigeria, for which the artist envisioned herself. Meanwhile, her more intimate virtual show for Jack Shainman focuses on solitary, free-flowing stories told in images and text.

Here Ojih Odutola discusses both exhibitions, his rich exploration of black identity and how art can be a balm and a space for agencies in times of crisis.

The Ojih Odutola 2017 exhibition in Whitney, New York helped her raise her international profile.

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

CNN: Can you take us through what your What will the Barbican show look like when it is revealed?

Toyin Ojih Odutola: Some pieces are seven meters high, and some are really, very small. It’s all based on a myth I wrote last year about an ancient civilization that was set in the state of Plateau in central Nigeria. For me, there was a need to immerse myself in visual storytelling in a way that was engaging and different, and I felt very present.

There are drawings on every drawing and they may look like a decorative motif, but in fact it is a system in action. When you see a drawing completely full of these lines, you see a system that is not spoken, not seen, but exists everywhere in the world of these signs. It affects and affects them, but they don’t admit it. It’s just there. Well of course it affects everyone.

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(Exhibition) deals with gender, power, hierarchy, oppression and imperialism in a way that will, I hope, after being discovered, be very subtle and nuanced, and speaks to the insidious nature of systemic oppression.

The Barbican show gave Ojima Odutola the opportunity to work on an ambitious scale, mixing large and intimate monochrome works based on an imaginary ancient myth.

The Barbican show gave Ojima Odutola the opportunity to work on an ambitious scale, mixing large 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 lock. It was what felt right and applicable then. It is through diptychs, independent drawings and independent texts. These are stories that came to my mind, which was completely new to me because I mostly plan things. This show was much more introspective.

These stories are anecdotal; vignettes are isolated. There’s not too much context, but there’s enough data to understand it. A conversation takes place between the image and the text. In one you meet a character leaning on the couch and you may have your own ideas about what that figure is thinking – about the interior of that moment. And then you read the text and move back and forth between the two of them and shape your own meaning.

Audience is an activity. Take a moment, win. I hope this is a way to question what you see and read.

What oral or written traditions related to myths have influenced you?

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

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

Ojih Odutola exhibits new works, created during the lock, in a virtual exhibition for the New York gallery Jack Shainman.

Ojih Odutola exhibits new works, created during the lock, in a virtual exhibition for the New York gallery Jack Shainman. Credit: Toyin Ojih Odutola

I am very influenced by comics and animations. For the Barbican show, dealing with epic mythology was my way of completely liberating myself 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 reference for the audience, and everything is domestic and strange. But I hope that as they pass through that space, they will begin to adapt to my visual language.

In your work, you often explore the texture and meaning of skin. How has this evolved with your practice?

At first, I wanted to come up with a way to visually translate how skin feels. I use slender lines; it’s very layered, and I’ve mostly done ink works with ballpoint pens. And then I started to include other drawing materials like charcoal and pastels, and now, lately, colored pencils and graphite.

Ojih Odutola compares black skin to water, calling it

Ojih Odutola compares black skin to water, calling it “a Mercury 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 Roni Horn, who uses water as a metaphor for a surface that is ambiguous and constantly changing. I think of skin in a very similar light. Leather is the terrain. It is a landscape on which you project meanings. It has its own history.

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

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

There is a lot of noise – pictures can be noisy. But with art, it’s just you and this work. You are in dialogue with him and there is no right or wrong way to engage. Art gives people the opportunity to be calm, to think and digest this moment and 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 a creator of the image that if I contribute to the images to the multitude of those available on the Internet, I will not show black pain, death or trauma.

It’s my choice. And if you’re an artist doing those things, fine. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, but for me it’s very important to provide images and texts that give people something else to deal with, because we already know that trauma and pain are a sad and unhappy thing that connects black people globally.

Blacks are catalysts. In every society of which we are a part, our culture has left an indelible mark. This is no accident. And so we should not always think that we come from a place of want, that we are powerless. I’m not saying these aren’t realities. But it is not how we should read ourselves 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 deal with potential, to deal with our opportunities. Yes, they are afraid of us because they do not know what we are capable of. But me we need not fear what we are capable of.

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