VOGUE, OCTOBER 27, 2017
The artist Toyin Ojih Odutola. Image by Abigail, The Artist Via Vogue
In the summer of 2016, the poet Claudia Rankine published an essay in Aperturemagazine about drawings made by the artist Toyin Ojih Odutola. Ojih Odutola was born in Nigeria, immigrated to the States with her family at age 5, and spent her formative years in Huntsville, Alabama. “Individuals populate her portraits,” wrote Rankine, “but remain in conversation with something less knowable than their presumed identity. To settle down her images, to name them, is to render them monolithic.”
Rankine was writing about Ojih Odutola’s pen and ink drawings, for some time the signature of her practice. These were, in her own telling, “conceptual portraits” of anonymous subjects (though if you looked close, the faces often resembled that of the artist) depicted unclothed and decontextualized in blank space. What distinguished them was both medium—pen and paper is not often associated with fine art—and style. Ojih Odutola’s subject, principally, was black skin, which she drew shimmering and undulating and alive, sometimes in monotones, sometimes with prismatic bursts of color. She wanted to show “what skin feels like,” she told Taiye Selasi in the New York Times. "The epidermis packs so much. Why would you limit it to the flattest blackness possible?” These were technical, material investigations into modes of rendering blackness, something the western art historical canon long treated as a matter of limited interest (in that sense, she’s as much in conversation with an abstractionist like Ad Reinhardt, who spent a decade singularly devoted to black paint, as she is with a contemporary figurative painter like Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, whose fictional subjects also subvert notions of “presumed identity”). On another level, Ojih Odutola’s drawings operated as a sort of clever reversal: if all you see is skin, let me show you how I see it, as supernatural, transcendent, defiantly hyper-realistic.
Ojih Odutola’s pen drawings won her a significant following. Solange Knowles is a collector. Lee Daniels chose to hang one of the artist’s works—a 2013 drawing called “Hold It In Your Mouth A Little Longer”—on the walls of Cookie’s apartment on the third season of Empire. In 2015, for a exhibition at Jack Shainman gallery in New York, Ojih Odutola introduced a new series, called The Treatment, in which she sourced images of famous white men—Prince Charles, Benedict Cumberbatch, Bobby Fisher, to name a few—and drew them with black skin, rendering her subject, in some cases, unrecognizable (“the blackness usurps,” the artist observed to Interview Magazine).
The Whitney Museum of American Art bought one of those Treatment drawings, and a couple years later, the institution has also given Ojih Odutola, 32, her first New York City solo museum show. The work that comprises To Wander Determined, which opened last week and is curated by Rujeko Hockley and Melinda Lang, represents a major departure from the work that sparked Rankine’s observation. These are dazzlingly colorful, large-scale (nearly life-size) portraits of richly dressed black individuals. Self-possessed, blasé even, they pose in lush interior and exterior settings, rendered in a sumptuous palette of ochre yellow, deep blue green, lavender and millennial pink. In “Pregnant (2017)” a slender woman in a floral silk top and a deliberately see-through skirt stands against a glass block wall—a meditation on transparency perhaps—near a doorway leading out to a sandy path. In “Surveying the Family Seat (2017),” a bald, bearded patriarch in a Deadwood-esque vest and trousers gazes out, absentmindedly, over green hills and pastures. “Representatives of State (2016-2017)", which hangs at the entrance of the gallery, shows four female figures, standing in front of an arched window, gazing down at the viewer, regal and distant. Wall text offers clues into who these people are: the members of two of Nigeria’s oldest noble clans, joined together by the marriage of two of their sons, the Marquess of UmuEze Amara, TMH Jidofor Emeka and Lord Temiope Omodele from the House of Obafemi. It’s this couple who have together lent their venerable collection of family portraits to the Whitney, and it is they who seem to be depicted, clad in skinny slouchy suits, their hands casually brushing, in “Newlyweds on Holiday (2016).” The plaque that presents this context is signed by the Marquess’s deputy secretary, one Toyin Ojih Odutola.
These colorful, intricate, monumental images may be a new direction for the artist, but like her earlier work, there’s something deliberately unsettling here. How can Toyin Ojih Odutola be both a secretary and a Whitney-anointed art phenom? Isn't homosexuality criminalized in Nigeria? Identity, it’s clear, is ever shifting. So is material: From afar, these appear to be oil paintings; on closer examination, it’s evident that they’re drawings on paper, made using chalk pastel, charcoal and graphite, a technique that the artist developed during a 2016 residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Northern California, and explored further for a solo show last year at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora (there are a few drawings from that exhibition, which focused largely on the UmuEze side of the family, that also appear in this one, which focuses mostly on the Obafemi side).
Within these portraits, anachronisms and anatopisms abound. Some clothing is overtly contemporary, some is retro or difficult to place in time. Or in space: in “Years Later-Her Scarf (2017), a man dressed for cold weather sits in front of an open doorway, palm fronds waving outside. In “The Missionary (2017)” a woman sits on a terrace overlooking a hillside studded with buildings, some of them terra cotta roofed-farm houses, others concrete, Brutalist-looking bunkers. Is there a landscape in the world that contains both? If you study the indoor spaces, you’ll find angles that don’t make sense, M.C. Escher-style illusions, off-kilter vantage points.
These moments are intentional, opportunities to set the viewer on edge, and they point to the most unnerving incongruity of all: in this country we have no visual vernacular for imagining long-standing, aristocratic black wealth. And Ojin Odutola is asking us to stretch to picture it, and in so doing, to recognize that it should not feel like such a stretch. “Everyone says, I wish they were real,” the artist explained when we spoke by phone about her fictional dynasty. “And the thing is, they could be. It’s just there was never the opportunity to discover that. And so just imagine that. Really and truly imagine that we were left to our own devices, and we developed on our own, without any of the colonialist meddling, what would have happened?”
In a way, it’s the converse of the Treatment series: black figures imbued with white privilege. What’s most unexpected about these figures, Ojin Odutola pointed out, is their utter sense of ease, of nonchalance, even insouciance, reflected in their gestures, their postures, their gazes, an entitlement that the artist knows viewers—at least American viewers— will find hard to square with the color of their skin. “There are imaginary black figures on the wall of the Whitney, and they’re completely and utterly self-contained, living their best lives, not caring about our approval at all,” she observed. "I just love that.”
We talked more about the sleight of hand feat of To Wander Determined, why Ojih Odutola became so focused on the aesthetics of wealth, and why she decided to center this narrative on a gay couple.
You clearly know who all these people are and how they fit together, but you leave a lot of it deliberately murky. What’s the value of allowing us to draw our own conclusions?
When I started this whole series, I had an outline. I knew the characters, their stories, their backgrounds. I had this whole family tree. That didn’t need to translate to the audience. I wanted to frame it in a way that feels like a panel from a graphic novel: you’re just walking into that story; it seems disorienting. It seems like I need more context to explain this picture. But the picture as it exists explains enough. I had to fight the kneejerk reaction to add more. I like the idea that people can decode a picture, but not in some way where they need to figure out why this guy is wearing a vest that looks like it’s from the 1920s, or why this woman is dressed like she’s from the 1940s. The point is more about why your imagination doesn’t even assume this in the first place.
I kept thinking of what Claudia Rankine wrote about your work, that your images somehow refuse to be settled down, resist being tied to a single interpretation of identity.
Absolutely. I guess it suddenly becomes a trend now, that artists who look like me are being shown in institutions. And so the question I keep getting is, what can you offer as a black woman artist? Which is annoying for me, an immigrant kid who grew up here. I’m three-tiered in my identity: it’s not just blackness, not just woman-ness; I’m also an immigrant. The thing I’ve always wanted to say is, I want you to see how less small this world can be if we allow it. This is an imaginary family, but it’s an imaginary family that could be anything to anyone. To demand that one thing be the case, that’s not going to happen with this show. It feels good to leave this here and watch this work become in viewership. I’m just excited to see what it becomes in two months. What is the story? Once I put it on the walls, I’m kind of done.
The thing you’re trying to get us to think about is what would black wealth look like and why is it so difficult for us to picture. The question of the aesthetics of wealth, more broadly, feels really timely: we’ve just seen someone rise to the presidency in this country whose wealth, or perceived wealth, seems to be his only credential. How much were you thinking about Trump when you were creating this work?
That was the start of this whole thing. It was 2016. We were mired in what would be the longest election cycle I’d ever experienced. The guy was a joke, he was a reality TV star, but everyone was like, look, he’s wealthy, he’s rich. That somehow justified that he had a lack of political experience, that he didn’t have any idea what the job really entailed. It wasn’t in this binary way, let me put black people in wealthy surroundings. I was like, no, I want to see a space and a subject in that space that’s unquestioned, because wealth is seen in a matter of fact way. What wealth affords us is the privilege to not care.
Why would we want someone who has the privilege to not care being our president? It makes no sense. It started from a slightly angry place. The show at MOAD developed in a way that was hopefully very positive: yes, wealth was the starting point, but also a wealth of self, the notion of knowing that you can walk into a space and see these people in the most boing staid way that wealth affords. Fast forwarding to now, and the Trump administration era that we’re in, where nothing seems for sure, everything is mercurial, every day is a new journey, you have to kind of block everything out. I started making this work in June, and I just shut everything off.
You mean the news.
Yeah, it’s exhausting. My concern as an artist is to reveal things in as subtle ways as I can. There’s this nostalgia: Make America Great Again. White men are feeling stifled, like they can’t speak freely. They’re not accounted for. One of the things I tried to inject into this series was constantly hearing about the mediocrity of white men, how that was no longer helping them move through the world. Because, yes, it’s a globalized, capitalistic system. You can’t just be mediocre. You can’t just fall back on your whiteness and your maleness as a thing that can get you ahead. You have to do a little more—you feel me guys? Maybe put your tiki torches down and try something new. Because everyone here is hustling just to be seen, and all of us have to be exceptional to do so. You have been unremarkable for a very, very long time. I wanted to show an unremarkability: yeah, I’m in the middle of a gorgeous home, with a green chair, and a see-through skirt, and a paisley tee, and I’m just living my life. There’s no other purpose besides that. And that is a luxury that’s been afforded a group of people for a very long time, until very recently. But in order for me to create that piece, I have to be extraordinary. I have to work twice as hard to make this picture look unremarkable. That was what I was pushing at, what seeped in. Because I kept hearing it all summer, with all the statues, the protests, it was like, everyone is very angry. And I don’t understand where this anger is coming from. The people who should be angry are in Flint, Michigan.
There’s another layer of politics: the couple at the center of these families is gay; in Nigeria, homosexuality is illegal.
These two men are my heart. I love the idea that these two grand families are anchored by two gay men, that’s why we in the audience are even seeing this show: because of two gay men. And as a Nigerian, I’m very much aware that Nigeria made gay marriage illegal, which is very strange considering that they don’t have dependable electricity in parts of the country, but yes, let’s pass a gay marriage ban. That’s definitely what we need right now in the world.
It’s just two guys. That’s all it should be. The same way you would see in the UK: this is the grand collection of the Althorp house, the Earl of the Althorp and his wife, they’re about to present their collection. That’s the joke of it all, I just wanted two gay men to be the grand lords that are imparting their family history together. That, to me, shouldn’t have to be political. I would just like people to walk through, and not even think about it. That’s when I know I’ve succeeded. They walk through and say "cool." They don’t even realize at all.
Judging by your Instagram, you’re a really voracious consumer of images. These drawings are all collaged from different bits of source material: the pose might be different from the face might be different from the background, etc. Can you tell me a little bit about your process?
Hashtag research. The life is real. My work is investigative. It’s rigorous. I’ll look at thousands of images. Instagram is just a fraction, a tiny speck of that. A lot of it is stuff that’s always been around that nobody knows about, particularly because you’re dealing with the western art historical canon. You don’t see an amazing commissioned portrait of a Maharaji from the 1920s. I build off of composites: it is a collage, an amalgam of all this stuff. I put it all in the picture, but have to make it in a way that you can’t tell where the source is from. Everything feels familiar but still foreign and strange, remixed in a way that you haven’t really seen this configuration before. This goes to using multiple figures for one figure. I’ve gone on Vogue many times, looked up The Row, Valentino, Duro [Olowu], gotten ideas about pattern, color, composition. The best advice I ever got was from my mother: the more you see, the more you learn. I mean, it’s true, right? When I was a kid, I came here and I couldn’t speak English. I had to watch people. I had to watch a lot of a TV. I remember, even as a kid, looking at Disney animation, watching movements, surroundings, because that was informing language for me.
You’re so known for pen and ink. What was it like to switch to pastel?
The ballpoint pen was the rudimentary tool that was ubiquitous and easy to find in the doctor’s office, and somehow I’m making drawings out of them, Pastel is a very unusual choice, because it’s a dry medium. It’s chalk; it’s not even oil pastel, which is a lot thicker, a lot more impasto potential with that. I wanted to have a tool I could blend, I could use my fingers. I’m not using a brush. I’m using my fingers, and my hands to make these marks. Pastel is a very immediate tool, as is charcoal. Even though I’m using painterly methods, applying layering techniques that a painter would use, I’m still working with a material that is very quick. You gotta think on your feet with it. You have to really be confident with it. There were times I struggled. Let me tell you! Where I wanted to say, why in the hell would you work with this medium? It is so difficult. It is so not about your life.
It’s kind of a caustic medium. It’s a bit of a diva. But I don’t mind it. I feel like there’s so much that people wouldn’t expect. They’d expect oil painting, or acrylic, or watercolor, but they wouldn’t expect a wall full of pastel drawings. It’s so, like, impressionist. What are you: Monet? It’s also the kind of thing you would expect from a soccer mom. Here I’m going to present it as grand historic narrative painting, and it’s pastel drawing. That’s pretty fucking amazing, that I could pull off that coup, you know?
This interview has been condensed and edited.