Toyin Ojih Odutola Writes A Love Letter to Black Britain

Maebel, 2012. Photo: MoMA
Maebel, 2012. Photo: MoMA

Toyin Ojih Odutola is a Nigerian-American contemporary visual artist known for her vivid multimedia drawings in various mediums, and these examine the reshaping of identity through a diverse range of sources and modes of story-telling.

Early life

Born in Ile-Ife, an ancient Yoruba city in south-western Nigeria in 1985, moved with her family to American where she went on to study for her BA at the University of Alabama in Huntsville following with her MFA in San Francisco at the California College of the Arts.

Currently living and working in New York, Ojih Odutola produces artwork that engages in the complexness and diversity in the interpretation of identity. By using her unique style of visual complexity, her compositions turn the traditions of portraiture and storytelling on its head. 

Ojih Odutola’s creative work links inequality and the notion of blackness as a social symbol. Ojih Odutola exhibits work at The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; The Art Institute of Chicago; Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston Princeton University Art Museum; and the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington, D.C.

Exhibiting at the 12th Manifesta Biennial in Palermo, Italy in 2018 and collateral exhibitions for the 58th Venice Biennale 2019 and currently exhibiting at the Barbican in London with an immersive and powerful show called A Countervailing Theory, the theory refers to the idea of “countering an existing power with an equal force”.

Toyin Ojih Odutola. Photo:

A Countervailing Theory comprises 40 monochrome drawings and contemporary prints, large scale, and a multi-layered, atmospheric soundscape. The soundscapes have been created by Peter Adjaye to respond to the work, adding drama and depth to the exhibition.

Ojih Odutola influences are graphic novels, and she uses this technique to construct a fictional framework for the drawings. The concept for A Countervailing Theory set within a surreal interpretation of the landscape similar to the Plateau State in central Nigeria. 

The work depicts the tale of a fictional prehistoric civilisation, dominated by female rulers and served by male labourers. Investigating and commenting on a diverse range of influences, from history to popular culture through to modern-day political narratives, Ojih Odutola explores the power dynamics at play within this fictional community.

Reimagining of Nigerian slaves

Ojih Odutola’s previous work addresses the ductile nature of belonging and the role of place in shaping this concept throughout history, in series including, Tell Me A Story, I Don’t Care If It’s True – 2020. In this series of work, Ojih Odutola studies the connection between image and text. Ojih Odutola talks about the exhibition that is currently on show at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York as a fascination – “I’m often fascinated with how miscommunications happen and what the imagination conjures in misconstrued spaces and the gulfs between what’s intended and how it is received. There lies the possibility for stories to emerge from within these spaces of missed connections.”

Nanban (2020). Photo: Jack Shainman Gallery

12th Manifesta Biennial in Palermo, Italy in 2018 offers an exhibition called Scenes of Exchange. Here Ojih Odutola describes the presence of West Africa in Italy through episodes of daily life in a series of charcoal and pastel drawings. Depicting intimate scenes highlighting hidden associations with trade, objects, ideas, and comments on the connections that make exchange possible by making a tribute to Palermo’s cosmopolitan history, championing the marginalised, ignored and deliberately misunderstood in the community.

Studying the 2015 -2017 exhibition, The Treatment we see Ojih Odutola incorporating chalk, ink, pen, and marker into textured portraits addressing the cooperation between line and form, as well as the context of the surroundings and the perception of the viewer.

Bandages of grey, black, white, and navy come together to form the shape of a woman’s body. This camouflage-like image doesn’t disguise its subject but highlights the process. The marks which are blocks of shading are left as they are, distinct lines and evidence of the process.

A very unique technique

Through all of her works, you can see persistent attention to the texture of the skin, achieving extraordinary luminous effects through her distinctive techniques of building and blending her drawing materials but leaving her unique mark-making the overall feature of the work. 

Recently a remarkable portrait of the writer Zadie Smith was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery in London. The image now on display is a colourful pastel, pencil, charcoal and graphite work carried out on paper depicting Smith in a natural pose with her afro a prominent feature. Anyone who follows Smith knows she usually wraps her hair and so this relaxed interpretation is without a doubt a gesture of admiration between Ojih Odutola and Smith.

The well-known reclusive writer described her delight at having her portrait created by Ojih Odutola as, ‘ A Love Letter to Black Britain’ and if Ojih Odutola sees Britain in this light, it is no wonder Smith is delighted.

Ojih Odutola’s works play with the grand tradition of a portrait painting by elevating the medium of drawing into contemporary prints, investigating images through the lens of aesthetic, conceptual and emotional principles, her works create an intimate viewing experience. We urge you to visit the exhibition at the Barbican to experience for yourself the undoubted talent of this understated contemporary artist.

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