Sometimes an artist’s work just hits you right in the gut. Toyin Ojih Odutola’s drawings deliver a powerful, visceral jolt of humanity…

Between The World & Me

I’ve been listening to the audiobook version of the profoundly moving Between The World And Me read by the author Ta-Nehisi Coates. Go read, sample or listen to it if you haven’t already.

Written in the form of a letter to his adolescent son, Coates talks about the construct of race through his experiences as a black man in America. The genius of Coates writing lies in its rhythmic repetition, the way it rises and reverberates with a reverence for the black body. What it’s like to inhabit it, protect it and live meaningfully within it.

Coates’ razor sharp focus on the physicality of black women and men’s experiences bypasses the safe emotional distance of intellectual discourse. This is a direct confrontation with a deeply uncomfortable reality.

“I believed, and still do, that our bodies are our selves, that my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves, and that my spirit is my flesh.”
~ Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me ~

Toyin Ojih Odutola’s tenderly contoured bodies display ideas of ‘blackness’ both projected and lived in. Portraits that give flesh to the pulsating spirit of Coates’ words.

Toyin Odutola - Hold It In Your Mouth A Little Longer

Toyin Odutola – Hold It In Your Mouth A Little Longer

2013, charcoal, pastel, and graphite on paper, 40 x 30 inches. Jack Shainman Gallery.

Unmaksing The Single Story

Odutola was born in the university town of Ife, Nigeria. At five years old her family moved to America where her Dad worked and studied at the University of California, Berkeley. At ten years old, a tenure-track position for her father, saw the family move to Huntsville, Alabama. She went on to complete her B.A. at the University of Alabama in Hunstville before gaining an M.F.A. from California College of the Arts. She now lives and works in New York.

Life weaving chapters of complexity, creativity, struggle, success and a thousand other stories that make up a life. Each one an opportunity to expand our understanding or a pigeon-holing label that flattens it.

Odutola illustrates such flattening in a 2014 interview with Modern Painters describing the culture shock she experienced in that move from Berkeley to the American South…

“I went from being just this Nigerian kid in Berkeley to being a black kid in Alabama. You start to realize, ‘Oh, I’m flattened. I’m not a whole person anymore.’

My identity is not based on performance, it’s based on something that’s pre-determined by someone else, and I don’t even understand what that is because I’m an African who came to America.

Suddenly I’m African-American and black when I didn’t even know what the hell that meant.”

In her 2009 TED talk the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie described the dangers of the single story – of defining someone’s identity based on preconceived beliefs and stereotypes instead of the myriad experiences that make us human.

“The consequence of the single story is this –
it robs people of dignity. It emphasises how we are different rather than how we are similar.”
~ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ~

Toyin Ojih Odutola - The Shade of Three Countries

Toyin Odutola – The Shade of Three Countries

2015, charcoal on board. Jack Shainman Gallery.

Speaking to Think Africa Press in 2011, Odutola describes her creative response to the single story and her desire to portray the multi-faceted richness of personal experience…

“I wanted desperately to create images of subjects whom I could identify with—subjects who looked like how I felt about my skin, my selfhood.

Essentially, I wanted to create the embodiment of what Blackness felt like to me. I wanted the blackest of the black to show full of light, not in contrast or comparison, but a lightness that is within, that is an inextricable part of it.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is, I wanted to present a Black figure as something more than Other, something that is vulnerable yet dignified, strong as well as instantly fragile. I wanted to capture me.”

How Odutola began capturing that essence owes much to an encounter with the work of a relentlessly driven oil painter.

‘Dude, I’m an artist’

It was while an undergraduate at the University of Alabama that Odutola first came across the paintings of Lucien Freud. Specifically Freud’s unflinching Refection (Self-Portrait) from 1985:

Lucian Freud - Reflection Self Portrait

Lucian Freud – Reflection (Self Portrait)

1985, oil on canvas, 51 x 56cm (20 x 22″).

“That man changed my life,” she says. “The way he’s looking out just past the viewer’s perspective, the landscape of the face just hit me like a stack of bricks. you didn’t see that and see oil paint.

I saw that and said, ‘I’m going to use whatever medium i’m using and take it beyond. I want you to question what I’m doing.’ I still look at that piece and am like, What the fuck are you made of, what the fuck did you do? How did he take this boring face and make it the most interesting thing you’ve ever seen?

You start to think about what his face has gone through, what he’s gone through. That minute, I was like, ‘dude, I’m an artist.’ ”

Odutola’s medium wasn’t to be the oil paints and brushes of Freud, turning instead to drawing and the familiar lines of Sharpies, Pentels and ballpoint pens. The video below is a great example of Odutola’s layered drawing technique.

It was the humble ballpoint pen, in Odutola’s hands, that became the instrument to transmit the blackest of the black with the lightness within she was searching for.

“I noticed the pen became this incredible tool. The black ballpointink on blackboard would become copper tone and I was like, ‘Wow, this isn’t even black at all!'”

The magic of the ballpoint pen is expanded further in a 2015 interview with Bomb Magazine

When I press the pen into the surface of paper, board or wood, a sort of engraving is taking place, akin to the process of printmaking. The magic of viscous fluid is that the darkest areas, the relief-like marks, also become the lightest areas by simply changing one’s point of view.

Watch Odutola at work with her pens as part of the Art Assignment for PBS…

The construction of identity

Odutola’s portraits have increasingly explored notions of identity and our compulsion to prescribe these constructions to individuals and whole groups of people.

Even when using images of herself Odutola has never ‘viewed the portrait as about the sitter’ instead seeing it as ‘an occasion for marks to happen’. In a discussion with Emily McDermott in Interview Magazine Odutola recalls a quote from a Francis Bacon biography that describes exactly what she’s doing…

“The object is a technique and the technique is the object”
~ Francis Bacon ~

“Of Context and Without”, a show at Jack Shainman Gallery in December 2015, saw Odutola utilise this freedom of technique as the object in powerful ways.

Toyin Odutola - The Treatment 14

Toyin Odutola – The Treatment 14

2015, pen, gel ink, and pencil on paper, 30 x 23cm (12 x 9″). Jack Shainman Gallery.

Portraits of iconic white men from Picasso to Prince Charles are rendered in blackness and the effect is surprising and disorientating. Odutola elaborates on her thinking in that same discussion with Mcdermott…

“I knew my work was known for black subjects and I didn’t want to portray black victimhood, so I thought, “What can I tackle? Let me be really cerebral about this…” I wanted to tackle blackness as a subject—not the men, but blackness itself—and how it negates or devalues a subject, at least in our Western construct. Then I thought, “How am I going to make this even more clever? Let me do famous white guys.”

McDermott comments some she can easily recognise while others she has no idea who they are. Odutola responds…

“And that’s the beauty of it, because the blackness usurps. The reason we’re showing it in a grid was because it’s like the lineup, the mug shots. There’s one of Benedict Cumberbatch in a hoodie. The guy went to Harrow [School, an English independent school for boys], but does that matter? Because the moment he’s rendered in blackness and a hoodie, what do you think?”

Toyin Ojih Odutola, The Treatment 26

Toyin Odutola – The Treatment 26

2015, pen, gel ink, and pencil on paper, 30 x 23cm (12 x 9″). Jack Shainman Gallery.

Drawings as a galaxy or the universe

Odutola talks so beautifully about her art it’s difficult not to copy entire pages of quotes from interviews. So if you’re drawn to her work as much as me I’d highly recommend scrolling down for more images, quotes, videos and a full list of the interviews for further reading. The Jack Shainman Gallery has put together a comprehensive PDF file of collected articles and interviews on their website – click the ‘Press’ link for the PDF.

While I couldn’t find any Toyin Ojih Odutola prints available to buy online you can purchase her art book Alphabet from Blurb in hardback or softback below.

Toyin Ojih Odutola - Alphabet

Toyin Ojih Odutola – Alphabet

“A Selected Index of Anecdotes and Drawings” is a second edition of Odutola’s MFA thesis document that pairs randomly selected writings with artworks over 78 pages. 20 x 25cm (8 x 10″). Published 2012.

“The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is – it’s to imagine what is possible.”
~ bell hooks ~

TOYIN ODUTOLA - The Uncertainty Principle

Toyin Ojih Odutola – The Uncertainty Principle

2014, charcoal, pastel, marker, and graphite on paper, 76 x 102cm (30 x 40″). Jack Shainman Gallery.

“What we think we are, we are not, the things that we project aren’t inherently so.”
~ Toyin Ojih Odutola ~

Toyin Ojih Odutola - You are enough—as is

Toyin Odutola – You are Enough-as is,

2013, marker on black board, 71 x 112 cm (44 x 28 inches). Jack Shainman Gallery.

“I drew him with a metallic golden Sharpie and he’s literally golden. I told him, upon finishing the portrait: ‘Look at you in this vulnerable state. You’re golden. You are beautiful. You are enough. I respect you and your sentence but before you put on that sentence, this person exists and that person is you. And it’s beautiful.’ I wanted him to know that.”
~ Toyin Ojih Odutola ~

Toyin Ojih Odutola - The Paradox of Education

Toyin Ojih Odutola – The Paradox of Education

2013, charcoal and pastel on paper, 102 x 76cm (40 x 30″). Jack Shainman Gallery.

“The subjects are containers of these multitudes of marks and landscapes and colors. They’re not real, they are 2-D figures in a picture plane, but what really is going on is those multitudes aren’t grounded in reality at all. When your imagination is aware of that and you willingly take that on, of course you can portray anyone, anything. It’s incredibly freeing as an artist in that way because you don’t feel restricted by any social code, aesthetic rule or formal standard. You can push past that.”
~ Toyin Ojih Odutola ~

Toyin Ojih Odutola - LTS III

Toyin Odutola – LTS III

2014, charcoal, pastel, and marker on board, 32 x 40 inches. Jack Shainman Gallery.

” I love when people describe the drawings as a galaxy or the universe. It’s an incredible observation. That’s exactly where I want to go with this work. That’s something black people have avoided up until very recently and where we need to go.”
~ Toyin Ojih Odutola ~

Toyin Ojih Odutola, New Growth (Maebel)

Toyin Ojih Odutola – New Growth (Maebel)

2013, pen ink and bronze marker on board, 33 x 35cm (13 x 14″). Jack Shainman Gallery.

Toyin Ojih Odutola - He Just Was

Toyin Ojih Odutola – He Just Was (left panel)

2014, charcoal, pastel, marker and graphite on paper, 76 x 102cm (30 x 40″). Jack Shainman Gallery.

All images are courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.

Toyin Odutola links

Follow Odutola at toyinojihodutola.com and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Sources & further reading

Wallpaper Magazine article by Michael Slenske, December 2015
Huffington Post article by Claire Fallon, December 2015
Saint Heron interview by Tanekeya Word, December 2015
The Creator’s Project by Kilo Kish, November 2015
Culture Type article by Victoria L. Valentine, February 2015
Bomb Magazine article by Ashley Stull, February 2015
Interview Magazine article by Julie Bramowitz, December 2013
IRAAA+ article by Fayemi Shakur
Artsy Toyin Odutola feature page