Photos by Robert Wright
Toyin Ojih Odutola once recalled seeing an exhibition of Edward Hopper’s paintings: “Of course, you read about his work in books,” she noted about the prominent twentieth-century American realist. “But to actually be in a room where you can study his hand, his mark—it changes your entire education.”
Given the distinctive and precise marks Ojih Odutola makes on paper, using objects as ordinary as ballpoint pens, charcoal, and most recently, pastels, it’s possible that her presence this year as Barnard’s Lida A. Orzeck ’68 Distinguished Artist-in-Residence may have a similar effect.
Lida Orzeck, PhD, a member of Barnard’s Board of Trustees who has given generously to the College over the years, endowed this residency in March 2015 with a substantial gift. Ojih Odutola is the College’s second Orzeck Artist-in-Residence. The first was world-renowned dancer Wendy Whelan. As part of Ojih Odutola’s residency, she is participating in a host of campus events, some big and public—like her January 31st dialogue about Art & Equity with South African artist Mary Sibande, and a talk about her new book, The Treatment—and others more focused on students of the visual arts—such an intensive two-week drawing course, a studio visit for visual-arts majors, and a senior studio critique.
In six short years, the Nigerian-born Ojih Odutola has gone from undiscovered art student to global fame, complete with a solo exhibit at one of the international art world’s most prominent venues, New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. (That exhibition, titled To Wander Determined, is on display, free, through February 25th.) As an artist, she has been propelled by pure talent, significant doses of both humility and self-possession, and an inspiring work ethic. And has much to teach the Barnard community about the sometimes rarefied world she now inhabits. There’s no blueprint for success, she is sure to tell students. And it’s best to approach one’s own artistic career with low expectations, on one’s own terms. Toyin Ojih Odutola 101? “You have to really desire to trudge through,” she says.
Like Hopper, Ojih Odutola is known for her mark, for the way she puts pen and, increasingly, pastels and other media, to paper. To date, much of her work is portraiture of people real and imagined, with much critical attention paid to the way she depicts her subjects’ skin.
“Skin as geography is the terrain I expand by emphasizing the specificity of blackness,” she has said, “where an individual’s subjectivity, various realities and experiences can be drawn onto the diverse topography of the epidermis. From there, the possibilities of portraying a fully-fledged person are endless.” Her comments come from the exhibition text of her 2013 solo show, The Constant Wrestler, at the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art. At this show, she announced a political, technical, and material artistic investigation that has its precedents in the work of artists such as Faith Ringgold. An African American artist, Ringgold in the 1960s responded to the traditional aesthetic conception of the color black as a void, and began to use black pigment as a symbol and metaphor for racial identity.
Skin is indeed a complex conceptual terrain in the heavily worked, intricate portraits of figures of African descent for which Ojih Odutula is known. The scale and density of these works on paper are impressive, especially when one notes that they are often produced through the humble means of ballpoint pen and ink. Ojih Odutula’s marks and gestures at once transform her anonymous subjects, who can alternatively appear in nuanced monotones or shimmering colors, into tangible surfaces. At the same time, she deepens the space in which they exist as physical presences. In these pieces, the deliberate act of mark making—as shown in detailed textures and multifaceted patterns, as well as the materials she uses—render her artistic vision palpable to the viewer. We are made aware, as philosopher Paul Crowther writes, that drawings are a product of gesture.
Ojih Odutula’s depictions, with their hatched marks and packed strokes, insist we recognize the hand and the emotion that drives its movement on the page. It is an unusual artistic project that foregrounds the artist’s materials and process as much as it does the product. We can sense the dryness of the pastel she uses and the quickness of a line. The subjects of African descent that she presents are absorbed in their own interior lives, not in our presumptions about their identities or our own definitions of blackness. In these “conceptual portraits,” as she calls them, her subjects don’t seek recognition or acknowledgment from the viewer, something which forces us, as viewers, into an active looking experience. Titles like Rather Than Look Back, She Chose To Look at You or Years Later-Her Scarf, or even The Constant Wrestler help create an alternate sense of the present in her works. The time is always now. The viewer must contend with what lies in front of her, rather than being comfortably led to believe that time is passing.
Since Ojih Odutola’s debut, critics have noted the elusive and self-contained attitudes of her subjects. This mood is in part supported by Ojih Odutola’s use of pose and gesture. She is sensitive to the impact of a subtle tilt of a chin, a neck that twists mysteriously out of reach, or the rise and fall of a shoulder when an arm is moved this way or that. Formally, the portraits often recall snapshot and cell phone photography. They are ordinary in their compositions and in their content but also deeply enigmatic in a casual sort of way—like photographs you keep, despite the fact that you aren’t quite sure what they depict.
Ojih Odutula also cites comics and graphic novels as influences, and has described her works as panels, which, as in these art forms, function as containers for action. Each panel is a discrete image, but it always functions within a whole. It is in the space between the panels—the gutter—where the reader creates and imagines the story in its entirety. Even when the narrative in her work is supposedly explicit, as in her most recent exhibition at the Whitney, sometimes it is as if one of the panels is missing and the viewer must continue on in the story, following along in an in-between space of thinking we know but also exposed to what we do not.
The “in between” speaks to Ojih Odutola’s immigrant identity and the role of place in her work and life. Ojih Odutola was born in Ife, Nigeria but grew up in Huntsville, Alabama. Her biography and the way in which she speaks about, questions, and depicts black identities has led her to be linked to writers like Ghanaian-born Yaa Gyasi and to Nigerian-born Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, whose 2013 novel, Americanah, articulated for a mass audience the multivalent social and cultural position of the African immigrant within the evolving history of American race relations.
In a world in which artists and curators have become more a part of mass culture, Ojih Odutola adds important insights to the critical discussion of artmaking. Ballpoint pen, even by her own admission, is a challenging medium. Her processes appear arduous but she has also proclaimed “Nothing is precious. . . I’m always trying to experiment with as many materials as possible. . . .” Her art is evidence of an ongoing investigation with the possibilities and limitations of her media, and of how to incorporate those things into the broader cultural and social ideas she seeks to convey. She has used her Instagram account as sketchbook and as a forum to solicit feedback on her work. Her voraciously rigorous “investigative” art process—what she does before she creates an image on paper—involves everything from reading Vogue to looking at works by the ’60s abstract painter Ad Reinhardt. In one interview, Ojih Odutola noted: “When I’m in the studio, when I’m creating something, even before I even start, when I’m doing thumbnail sketches, I have to say, ‘Why is this important?’ I actually usually start from the inverse [of the piece]. Why is this important?” She has spoken of the distractions in New York versus Alabama. And yet, for an artist, she has explained, being in New York has been transformative.
Perhaps most of all, she is straightforward about artmaking as work. As she says, “I think that a lot of people have still a very romanticized idea of what it’s like to be a working artist. That it’s just this, I don’t know, Jackson Pollock-like….[and] it just comes out.” If you Google her, though, there are a number of photographs of Ojih Odutola, bent closely over her pieces, hard at work. •