In Conversation: Toyin Ojih Odutola and Erin J. Gilbert
This week, we’ve got an inspiring conversation between Nigerian-American artist Toyin Ojih Odutola and her friend Erin J Gilbert, curator of Modern and Contemporary African and African American Art, where they talk about creative process and storytelling.
Erin: My name is Erin Gilbert and I'm here with Toyin.
Toyin: Hello, Toyin Oijh Odutola.
Erin: And we're here on the occasion of her exhibition, A Countervailing Theory here at the Barbican. It's Friday 9th October. The exhibition’s been up for a couple of months and it's really a pleasure to now be able to sit down with you, after having walked through the exhibition and be able to think through some of what we as an audience are able to see, but then some of what only you as the artist know. I'm really excited and grateful to everyone who brought us together to make this happen. So, I want to start from the beginning, just to provide a little context for those who may not have seen your work before and previous context and at the beginning. So you were born in Nigeria, you was born in Ife. Do you want to talk a little bit about how long you were there and where you were next?
I was born in Ife, Nigeria. My parents met in University there, so there's no familial ties to Ife . My father’s from South West Nigeria, more west of Lagos and my mother's from Enugu. So, there wasn't any kind of reason for them to meet until Ife, which is still in Yoruba land but of course for anyone who knows the history of Ife, that was Benin City, that was the kingdom of the Benin. My mother always says it was a fortuitous thing, that I was born there, when there was no reason for me be because there's such a rich artistic culture history in Ife. However, I didn't know that, I was incognisant in fact until I returned to Nigeria at sixteen. Then I saw the Benin Bronzes and things like that there but at the time, I was just a kid who was the daughter of teachers. We lived there for about 5 years, I left when I was 5. I have memories of being in school, getting in trouble, surprise, surprise! And then we came to California and we were there for about five years, and then we moved to Alabama.
Erin: It's interesting to me that you say that there's no familial tie but there is certainly a spiritual tie.
Toyin: Absolutely. Definitely.
Erin: So, we're going to jump a couple of years, I think Alabama’s really important for you as a site, obviously for you and your development as an adult, but I also want to think about your formal education. So, you earned a BA in studio art and communications, from the University of Alabama, and would you say this degree in communications is equally as important as the Studio Art Practice? I think one of the things we see through this exhibition is your narrative power, your storytelling power. Do you think you honed some of those skills as an undergraduate?
Toyin: Yes, I think when I was at UH, University of Alabama in Huntsville, there was an emphasis in Studio Art at the time. I don't know if it's the same now, that if you got an Art degree, you had to get a minor, you couldn't just get an Art degree. I think it had something to do with being a state school. So you could pick anything, some people pick language, people picked history. Initially I wanted to get the easiest minor...I'm that person! But then these things happen to you and I really liked communications. I really liked the department and all the classes I took for my minor, were really educational and really helped me in my career. I took Web Design, I took copywriting, copy editing, there was a Newspaper class and I took that. There was a lot of really interesting courses. There was in one course that I took about mediation of the internet and how do people, sort of mitigate the internet, which was very new at the time because I was that generation that was coming up. So, a lot of that helped me later but of course when you're in school, you're just thinking 'Alright, get my credits in, so I can graduate' but it is funny because I felt very comfortable in those classes, I felt like it made sense to me because I'm very fascinated by miscommunications, not communications. I find when your liaising as an artist, there's always going to be something that slips through the cracks and one of the things I loved about being in the communications class, is how everyone was so emphasising audience and thinking about audience engagement and experience. So that really honed how I present work in exhibitions, but also how to play with the things I want people to know, in terms of framework, and what I don't want them to know, to bring them out more. It's like when you know how it works well, you know what to do when it doesn't, so you can kind of, use that and manipulate that. So, yes things just happened. You don't know why but it all helped me.
Erin: I certainly think one of the things that is very distinctive about your practice, is that intention to communication, and if I think about both your parents as teachers, and then you are the story-teller, and/or having really developed skills around communications. I think the audience does benefit from your intention, certainly with this exhibition. We could talk about that a bit more but after that you earned an MFA in Painting and Drawing, at California College of the Arts. So what would you say, not just about art, what did you take from that experience and how did you begin to formulate yourself in the world as an artist distinct from others, in that context?
Toyin: Well you know, I did do a Yale Norfolk, so that was the first taste I had of being around other artists in a rigorous practice. I think when you go to a state school, you're those weird kids in the Art department at the time, but it was such a special situation, being in the Art department, I felt very free there but I never really understood what Art was as a theory. The way that it's romanticised and fantasized about now, that wasn't in my mind. I just loved to draw. That was it, it was very basic. Then you go in and you're meeting kids from CIA and RISD, and all of these other places, and they’re like 'Oh yes, in like five years I'm going to have a studio in Brooklyn' and I'm like what! Like what are you even talking about...
Erin: It wasn't the goal at the time...
Toyin: I remember being around these kids and hearing how serious they were, and I thought this is a very serious thing, being an artist. It's not just pretty pictures, and so that was really great, and then I graduated college. It was recession, so there was a lot of stuff with not getting jobs and everyone was really worried and all kinds of things. Just to give context, there was a lot of question personally about whether I wanted to be an artist or not, and then I applied to California College of the Arts and it was amongst, I think four other schools because I could afford the application fee of four schools, and I got a full scholarship to CCA. It was the only place that offered me a full scholarship, and I think if I hadn't have gotten that, then I wouldn't be an artist today, because that's kind of what set it. That was the confirmation I needed, that I was good.
Erin: Well let me ask you a question, just something you mentioned about loving to draw. You draw morning, noon and night. I mean, some of us are very grateful for that but how long do you think you've been drawing? What's your first memory of drawing?
Toyin: Ah god, it's so weird when people ask me that because I'm not that person, I wasn't that kid. When people say 'Oh I always wanted to be an artist'...I didn't know what I was doing! I was like, listen, what's going on today? Oh well, Toyin's outside playing. What's she doing? She's butt-naked, running around. That was me as a kid. Just picture that child. It was traumatising for my parents, and then all of a sudden, when I was maybe nine, when we moved to Huntsville, and I was obsessed with the Lion King, I've seen it many times, I love Timon. And my mum got me a colouring book and so I kept drawing Timon and it was a means of coping, which funny enough is how I draw now. It's a means for me to calm my brain whenever I'm really anxious, or there's a lot going on, or I feel overwhelmed in any way - I draw. It helps me kind of meditate, and centre myself but I ask questions as I'm drawing, that's why I keep saying like when I'm drawing like a figure portrait, I'm travelling in my mind.
So I find it to be topographical. I find it to be landscape.
It's a metaphysical landscape, but it's still something that I'm traversing. So drawing for me is like that kind of mental journey that allows for me to really think about things really deeply and consider all of the angles and all the perspectives. And it's a gift. You know, most people don't have that. You know, some people go into things that are not very healthy and trying to deal with things. I have the gift of just drawing when I'm scared or when I'm angry, all the rest of it.
Erin: I want to pick up on that idea of the journey because there is a place that I've heard you mention several times, that influenced your practice and I’d love for you to tell the audience a bit more about how Japan, as a space, and how Japanese prints in particular, have impacted your practice. As we talk about the exhibition, obviously there's a bit that we'll revisit. But how has Japan influenced you?
Toyin: It’s a huge influence, I mean, so much of what you have has an age. I think it was like Guillermo del Toro, you know, who directed Pan's Labyrinth, he talks about how the first ten years of your life as an artist is like, you're obsessed with for the rest of your life, like it's just something you're always in some way, you're revisiting that time.
I agree with that completely because so much happened in the first ten years of my life in terms of moving from Nigeria, moving even within the U.S. Japan came to me in the library book that I checked out from school in Alabama, and it was just like one of those things that you just pick up and you're like 'life in Japan', and it's like an old book from like the 80s or something. But I was like, what is this land? And it was, you know, just like a kind of fascination. And then later on, I think anime started getting really big, you know, like Dragonball Z and all this other stuff. So I was like really into that. But then me being me, would end up like watching the anime I shouldn't have been watching, if you’re catching my drift. A lot of like 80s anime, like Midnight City and like Gall Force and Vampire Hunter D, like all of these weird like stuff, you know, a child should not be watching. But of course I had Nigerian parents, like 'it's cartoon, let her watch cartoons'. I shouldn't have been watching those cartoons, but they were so visually gorgeous. Like I'd never seen the attention to detail and everything, such interesting compositional play and textures and all this stuff. But it was it was an animation.
And so around that time, that's when my love for Japan came. And I was very fortunate later on, actually, right after graduate school, going to Japan, being there, seeing a lot of the cultural influences that from afar you're not sure of until you're immersed in it, and you see how people just think in a certain way. Consider how to arrange things in a really beautiful way, you know, Eastern philosophies and all the rest of it. And so, yeah, it became like a really interesting source of inspiration for me in all of the stuff that I've done, but particularly in terms of composition, like I'm really interested in how they compose images in the works that I like in particular.
And then also just like the idea of asymmetry in Japanese culture is really important, like nothing is in the Western, you know, neoclassical legacy. Everything is very symmetrical. That doesn't exist there, everything is very asymmetrical. They always have to be something that is askew purposefully. So this idea of like things are almost broken and then put back together and it's even more beautiful being put back together than it is in this perfectly symmetrical or whatever form, which is a very American view of like everything being new and nice and bright there. It's like, no, we like things aged and weathered, but there's a history to that, there's a consideration to that. And nothing has to be perfect. In fact, in that imperfection, it is perfect. So that that influenced me a lot. And I've gone back to Japan many, many times, and I always learn something new every time I go. It's a real luxury. It's a privilege to get to go. And so I take my time to go a lot of museums and just kind of interact with different aspects of the culture that I find really exciting and interesting and challenging, too.
Erin: I think we can see all of that through your practice. It’s that attention to detail, the textures, the intentional asymmetry, all of that is really present within the work. And so it's nice to be able to hear how it is that you begin to interact with the culture and how that culture influenced your practice. Obviously, the other culture that's influenced your practice and has influenced this body of work disproportionately is to go back to your birth. Right. Go back to Nigeria and go back to the Benin, your encounter with the Benin. You began to talk about that. But you said when you were 16, the first time you saw the Benin bronzes in Nigeria, you want to talk about that a little bit? And then we'll talk.
Toyin: Yeah, I'm so bad about the university because there's the name of the university that my parents, my father worked in and my mother went to where they met. They have a museum, the houses, some of the Ife bronzes and things like that. I don't know about it now because we hear a lot about stuff being sold on Christie’s and under dubious means about how they got out of the country. So I don't know if they still have it. But at the time when I was sixteen, which is 2001, I went with my mother for a month and we stayed in Ife for about a week and a half. It was amazing because I hadn't been since obviously, I left. And so it felt like obviously a homecoming, but it also felt like this strange land, it was a fantasy in my head, you know, and it only like existed in America to me through pictures, right. So I'd like to be there and to see, like, where I went to school. You know, it's a weird experience because you're like, I went there. Wow. Like, you know, the architecture is beautiful. It's funny that we're in the Barbican because architecture is kind of brutalist in some places. But a lot of post-colonial architecture is like that, a little bit prettier. No shade on the brutal, it’s actually shade, but, you know, whatever. But yeah. And it was just like seeing that, you say bronze works, any kind of bronze works from that time was really enlightening because I had no idea and my mother would kind of like because I was drawing obviously the time she's like, you know, this is where you probably got this from, you know, seeing it but I have no recollection. Being back there was really influential.
But I think what I got from it was that the return home for me made me realize how little I knew about Nigeria, how little I knew about where I was from, not just in terms of like obviously culturally, but in terms of just like the imaginary like the you know, I for instance, I mentioned Japan and how much I know about that. That’s just from being there so often. Like when you're in a place you notice certain proclivities that a culture has. You learn certain things that are very distinct to a nation. But so much of what you know, Japan, they were colonized by the Chinese ancient, you know, history. But for most of it, it's, you know, Nihon, the land of the rising sun.
They're very proud of that, Nigeria doesn't have that, Nigeria is very young. The name Nigeria is very young. That's not the origin of the name of this country. So much of what my idea of Nigeria is, is coloured in by colonialism, is coloured by what has happened to the country. So that was always something that I felt a bit of a disconnect, too, because it's like, what am I really learning?
Erin: Well, and to what extent that idea of the youth of the country. Right. And by youth, you don't necessarily mean its status. Obviously, we know Africa is a continent, you know, has the oldest civilization that we know of, but that knowing is mediated, as you said before, it's mediated by pictures, or it's mediated by the television or it's mediated by learning systems and museums and schools and universities equally, I think we might say, have both underrepresented and misinformed multiple publics about Africa and Nigeria specifically. So what I think is really interesting is that the way in which you were actually able to travel and spend time and acknowledge not just your own information gap, but then what is an information gap for people in the U.S. general? Right. If you're Nigerian and you're seeing Nigeria for the first time and saying this is not what I experienced on the screen, even more so for non-Nigerians who might have that experience, even more so in a place like Britain, where we are now, in the site of the colonial power that shifted the nature of the country. Right ?
Erin: It’s actual topography, it’s actual geopolitical landscape, it’s economic landscape,
Toyin: And it's language.
Erin: And it's language, it’s language.
Toyin: I mean, we talk a lot about I mean, it's not so much this mediation. I think it's also this idea that so much of what I project on to, it is coming from a place of that colonialist lens because I'm thinking about what happened to it, not what it is. And that also, you know, I hate to use the word colours, but, you know, it influences your thinking. But I mean language I often think a lot about language not only in Nigeria, but also with Japan, because there's visual language. And so much of what I think when we talk about, for instance, Yoruba, Yoruba that is spoken now is the translation, the dilution that the missionaries did in was it like in eighteen hundreds or maybe even like, well, maybe even like a little earlier than that if we can. But it was a missionaries translation. The Yoruba that is spoken around the world isn't the Yoruba that they encountered when they first went there. You know, what was Nigeria before all of this? And I guess in my mind, even at 16 I wanted to encounter that Nigeria. I wanted to acquaint myself with it. But I always came against a wall. And that wall was history. That wall was colonialism. And you have to understand how infuriating that is.
Erin: What I think you've done, which is to liberate both yourself and so many others, is to try to reimagine it, to ask you, ask the question, what was it before? And I think it's a question that the context of this exhibition, we're able to think about one of the possibilities, one of the imaginaries about what was before. But as you say, this wall that you come up against, I remember us having a conversation about the exhibition in relationship to it being presented first in the U.K. and this idea of the BBC, right, the BBC's 100 Images, which was an amazing program, History of the World. But in one of those particular segments, there was a conversation about the bronze Ife head, and it's being found in the early 1900s. And this idea that it had to have existed B.C, but because there was so little information about Nigerian and African artisans at the time, it was posited that it couldn't possibly have been Algerians who did this, couldn't possibly have been, you know, African people who had this mastery of craft, who had this mastery of iron, who had this supreme artistic culture. And so I kind of want to ask you what your response was to that? And how it maybe even influenced what we're experiencing right now?
Toyin: It absolutely influenced. In fact, that was what started the whole thing. I watched it. It was a podcast, actually. It was called The History of the World in 100 Objects. It was done through the British Museum, which is a very interesting institution. And basically, they had this event. And it’s like oh, Ife, oh that's cool. So then I'm listening to it while I'm drawing. And all I remember is just as I'm hearing it, I'm like, this can't be right. Like they couldn't fathom. And by that, I mean the man who quote unquote discovered it to some German archaeologist who shall not be named, basically purported that the Greek Atlanteans must have come up from the Niger Delta. How, we will never know, and taught my ancestors how to create the bronze casting. The earliest bronze cast in the world is in Nigeria. You know, it's 11th century, this is 12th century. He couldn't have fathomed the mental and creative aptitude these people have to get an anatomically correct head that had the striations and all these beautiful textures and details that had a function too. It wasn't just an art object. It had a function in society. It was spiritual, but also in terms of like king, you know, royalty and things like that. But listening to this man talk about it, and of course, the program was very conscious. They had Ben Okri on there saying that, you know, there's a tranquillity to the idea of civilisation. And despite, you know, this lack of imagination placed on a civilisation that was very advanced, that doesn't take away from the power of this object and how it was created, I personally was pissed off. I just thought, what the hell is going on?
Like so much imagination for Atlantis, when he's right there with the very artisans that created this thing, the people who hold this legacy. It’s like when you look at pictures about, you know, curators, not curators, collectors around the Victorian era, when they started, the modern photography came around. You have them stand next to a craftsman. Right. And the object they created and, you know, they're very proud and they bring it back to Europe that suddenly removes the power of the craftsmen and renders it null. But they're bringing back the documentation like, oh, this is proof that I now, the coloniser, am the expert on this object.
Erin: And also, there's the anonymity, right? There's the factor that the name of the maker is very rarely transferred into the site were the work is then shown. And so you've also now interacted with these Benin's bronzes within the context of the British Museum. And so you've seen them come full circle. And one of the parallels, I think one of the things that this exhibition enables you as an artist to do, is a larger project around repatriation, not repatriation of just of objects, but of ideas-
Toyin: Of the imaginary, of the creative imaginary. I think that one of the things that is so frustrating is that you get this idea that the only thing that exists, that is of value from the continent is tied to extraction, pain and suffering and erasure. That's it. Every creative output is tinged with that. And you go there, of course, they don't see that. They're like, oh, no, we're going about our lives, we create all the time, there are people doing bronze casting now.
But the thing is, as a creator, that's what the speculative offers me, is a freedom in the imaginary because I live, and I exist in the Western world. I wish I could be Nigerian all the time. I want to, I don't know with this election. But in the in the sense that I wanted to create an imaginary that could cross that bridge, that transatlantic pain into something else, you know. And if it is and if it is invented, so be it. But that doesn't mean that invention can come from something true. You know, it doesn't come to something that's real and seeing the body bronze for the first time this year.
Actually, when I went to a British museum to see them, I felt like I was really in a very holy space, in a very beautiful space that was reverential and very deeply felt. I spent a good amount of time in that room and really sat there with them because I felt like there were stories to mind there. And I wanted to take the time to receive them and to be imbued by those stories. I know it sounds very-
ERIN: Appropriate. It's appropriate and I think, not to cut you off, but just to give you a chance to continue that. In the same vein, you've just used the term extraction. You've just used the term stories that could be mind. And in this particular story, A Countervailing Theory, I think when I first saw it, I said these are both ancient and futuristic. I remember thinking that they existed in multiple time spectrums and that this way in which you had already honed the power of the Ifa and the power of the Benin bronzes and then had transported us as an audience both back to that past with which we were unfamiliar, but to the possibilities of the future with which we're currently unfamiliar. In this context, you play the role of an archaeologist, who for the past ten years has directed the government sanctioned research and is now reporting on a, quote, newly discovered set of pictographic markings on black shale rocks in a depository mining site. And this is set in the plateau region of Nigeria, specifically Jos Plateau, which is the home of the Nok culture, which means you're also engaging with another history, another way in which a body of work and a set of people have come to be known in the West through there, through those markings. Do you want to talk a little bit about how and why you came to Jos Plateau as the site?
Toyin: It's a lot of a winding roads. So, right after the A History of the World in 100 Objects, there was this moment of, well, I wanted to create a history for myself. I just want to be, to feel free. And so many artists do this all the time, but I don't know why I felt like I needed permission. I was looking at a lot of ways where I could be granted permission. I kept thinking, what's the oldest rock known? So, I was already thinking geologically. And I was thinking what’s the oldest rock, basalt rock. I thought about the Olmecs in Mexico. So, Basalt Rock is like one of the oldest and it's the one that lasts the longest, you know, volcanic rock. Then I thought, well, is there basalt rock in Nigeria? There is, but not in the Delta. It's in central Nigeria. I was like central Nigeria. I don't know anybody there know. I was thinking like Yoruba land and I'm thinking, keep it in the Delta. Delta can hold results, but Jos Plateau has lots of different rock, not just basalt, millions of year-old rock formations. And I just started looking at, you know, just looking it up. And I hadn't seen any pictures, I was just reading about it and I got to see this place. It sounds crazy. They're saying, like all these columnar shapes that are formed from volcanic rock that had rose from the ground to create these rock formations. And then, of course, human interaction, possibly from the Nok, possibly from other places, had sort of moved them around and created sort of like a Stonehenge like sites throughout.
You know, you find it in Riyom, you find it in Jos plateau specifically and all these other places surrounding it. So, no, I just I looked up. I see the pictures of these rocks… My God, it was like the Lord delivered. It was crazy. Like I was like, oh, I know exactly what I'm drawing because it had so much textural possibility and had so much like visual language, I could mine diversity. And it was like I didn't even, and it wasn't just the rocks, it was like the landscape. It was gorgeous. I mean, it was like looking at Eden.
It was insane. And I just didn't know this existed. I had no family there. Of course, immediately I asked my parents and my mom's like, you know, I don't know anybody there, but you should do it. My mom knew it, she was like it's a beautiful place. Nigerians travelled there to vacation. It's like one of those kind of places. They have a lot of golf courses, unfortunately, which is a result of colonialism. That's another conversation, it's a place that people like to go and travel for, like summer vacation, just relax there. And I can totally see it's a beautiful paradise. And so that was a thing. And then also just like thinking a lot about how to how to use it. But how do I create something that predates the Nok because I didn't want to take away from that history and I wanted to play with the idea of this is a land that many people have crossed. I mean, many people have been through, you know-
Erin: Multiple civilizations-
Toyin: Multiple civilizations. That gives you a lot of freedom. You know, and I loved when you came to the studio because I was still trying to figure out what it was. I was like, I don't know if this is an ancient prehistory because there's a lot of sci-fi influences. And you said yourself that it's future and past. It's both. And it's like that just completely opened me up to whatever I could create. I let it happen. I didn't question the marks I was making anymore. I didn't question the way my hand would form certain lines. I just let it go. I've been saying I drew a line and I waited for it to arrive. I didn't want to force it.
Erin: You let it guide you.
Toyin: I let it guide me, which is very unusual for my process. I don't do that normally. I'm very, you know, very anal.
Erin: Well, no, I mean, I think as a point of reference, why it felt important to really think about the history of Jos as a site is that the exhibition that we're seeing is 40 images all left behind, all that have survived through centuries, all that have now given us a document and archive, all that speak their own language. There's a way in which that reference that you draw upon literally and have now given us again, feels so important as a way in which there are multiple types of mining happening.
Toyin: It's a re-engagement. Right. And I think also I mean, I've talked to the curator, Rujeko Hockley, when I did the Whitney show, she very correctly kind of shot me down when I said it, because I said I grew up not feeling like I had something to claim of mine. Like I felt like there wasn't something I could point to and say that is irrefutable. That’s it. Not that it wasn't there. I just I didn't feel it. You know, I knew I was there, and my parents had it all the time. They were like, oh, yeah, we have plenty of history. My father said, you know, oratorical stories all the time about the history of his family. And I come from chieftains on my dad's side. So, I just didn't feel like, you know, in the sense of like the Victorian legacy of like here is a catalogue of everything.
Erin: The Western, the Western way. There was not the document of the archives, the history of authoritarianism.
Toyin: And I just want to give that to a kid. I want to, I guess, is what that show was for me. It was like, this is yours. This is irrefutable. It may not be something that is the same standard that we're used to seeing something in the capital, age, history. But then what is the capital in history anyway?
Erin: Well then that shifts, given the time period where the Internet, which years ago may not have been thought of as a historical document, is now a site of reference for people and has authority but to try to think about the works and thinking again about this idea of making and letting your hand guide you. The second image, This is How You Were Made; Final Stages is of Aldo, right? The male character, the Koba, and his marks are literally, you are mark making upon that body. And there's a parallel with mark making in Yoruba culture. There's a parallel with that. And I'd love for you to kind of give us a little bit more insight into that idea of the dual mark making, both of you making those mark but then why it was so important that each one of the figures, both the Koba and the issue, both the female and the male, both have very distinct physical markings. Why and how did you come to that for this body?
Toyin: That's a really good question. Well, they’re signifiers, right? And I wanted it to be because scarification, of course, is in the culture. I hate the word scarification because it always has a sort of like nefarious read. It's not seen that way when you go to Nigeria. I mean, it's just like it's a marker. I have cousins with like, you know, the two, three marks on the cheeks to show which order they were born. There's a lot of Nigerians that have issues with that. They say it's very primitive, you know, they dismiss it, it's like, it's barbaric, which, you know –
Erin: We have markings too, they're called tattoos.
Toyin: Right. Like, there's so many cultures that have this. I think they're beautiful. I love what they signify. I love that it's like a self-definition, in a way. But in terms of the Koba, I kept thinking about this idea of like how do we, one, differentiate them from the Eshu, but to how do we also emphasise the fact that they’re manufactured, that they're made? Because the issue obviously, you know, they’re born is a different kind of physical presence than the Koba.
And so, I thought, you know, the only way I could emphasise it was to literally break their bodies up, to cut their bodies up into segments. So, they’re assembled and, you know, they're drawn in. You know, they're seamed together. They're assembled and they're seamed together like almost like a tattoo. And so that's what you see in that scene. I also just love tattoos. I think that I find tattoos to be a beautiful means of telling a story, too, on the body. Some people might look at it and think that it's a violence on the body of the Koba, but I don't see it that way. It's just because every line, if you notice, I don't take great pains to make the lines exactly the same with each Koba. Every Koba has a different way of where the lines fall because they're all made in different ways. So, there isn't individualisation of them, even though they're seen as, you know, one of many.
So scarification was, in that sense was really fun way of like bringing in this other element to distinguishing the characters and also just kind of making the Koba, again, emphasising their manufacturing, but also emphasising their helplessness because they don't get to choose how they're made, to choose how they look-
Erin: That they're implicated from the very beginning in a system. And for those who may be looking at the exhibition after having seen or listened to this podcast, the first eight works in the exhibition are all Aldo. They are all the Koba.They are all this manufactured male figure within various landscapes. Right. And then we move to the Eshu.
Toyin: Which is when we get into Akanke’s work and I don’t want to say favourites, but I love Akanke. I think she's like, there's always that person who's growing up in a very privileged position, very powerful position. But even then, she's not sure why. You know, she's kind of just like, I mean, you see it, you know, little bits and pieces, you know, because after Aldo’s sort of introduction we got into her world, you see her born in the pod. Then we see her as a child, amongst other children. Then we see her as a teenager and all the rest of it. And we're noticing each time an innocence, which is also an ignorance of her position, of her benefitting the system and how she's been raised to believe that she is you know, it's very Manifest Destiny idea, right? Like, I am meant to go out in the world and propagate and do all these things that I’m meant to do
Erin: She's a part of the ruling class. And so she operates.
Toyin: And I thought, how do I emphasize the women in this? Because I first they were just drawn, like, you know, very similar to how we are as human beings. But like, no, I want to give them a crown. So, they all have these sort of scars. And I saw this, actually speaking of references we were discussing earlier, there's I don't know what tribe it is, but it is West Africa-
Erin: The TIV
Toyin: Yeah. So, you see when they have the scars on their head, I thought it was most I almost wanted to do that. My mother would have had a heart attack, but it's around the head. So you have these scars that they draw and they're beautiful. And of course they protrude out because the body has to, you know, cauterise around it, like keloid scars.
Toyin: And it's beautiful. And it's usually around the head. Sometimes on the shoulders and neck. And I thought, oh, no, that's it. They have crowns built into their bodies, you know. So even as children, you see the crowns forming. And so that was where that came from.
Erin: Well, it's so interesting because as I was obviously thinking about all of this and looking at those references, there's also not just the beauty. This scarification is to enhance one's beauty, but it also speaks of one's sexuality. They talk about the erotic nature of touching them and how it is sensitive for a very long time. And so once it happens, it is a source of arousal. And in thinking about the works and at the point at which Akanke and Aldo finally touch one another, there are these moments where heads come together and there's these moments where the hand the placement of the hand is so important because it just barely grazes the back of the neck or near this crown. I think it's so interesting that there, it's thought of as simply a visual mechanism. But the idea that rubbing and touching one's head, especially adorned in this way, this crown, as you say, but also has an erotic or fertility implication. And as I mean, as we go through, I think it's really important to understand what I see in the work is this relationship between the female body and landscape. We don’t have to get into that right now, but I think as one might look at the exhibition and think through the rock formations and the indentations on the rocks and then the parallel with those, the head and the stratification. I mean, you talk a lot about the stratification.
Toyin: It's so funny that you mentioned touch. Touch was a huge factor in how I was creating this. Because when you're thinking about basalt rock, again, I'm thinking about how me as the archaeologist, quote unquote, is interacting with these objects. And it’s through touch. There's this idea about how the tactility of the work was very important. But I also think about touch in terms of the characters in this parable, because the Koba have only violent acts happen to them.
The very first act of them being made is very violent because they're being seen together. So all they know of is when it comes to touch is a is a violence, whereas the issue don't have that. And so when Aldo and Akanke come together, that scene where she's, you know, the hands touch is so key. So I call it vocabulary because it's an education for him, because he's never been touched that way. He's always been treated as with violence. That's his only means of understanding touch. That's his education. But for him to be touched gently and have that be an education for him, suddenly he realizes that his person is valuable. Suddenly he realises that his body is not there simply to serve. It's also meant to receive. That's also a huge part of it, too. So like that's what I mean by touching the sense of like when you talk about the erotic, the erotic, that is very important because those scenes where they do come together are very key scenes for him and for them both because she's never meant to touch him either. So both of them are discovering themselves within that. They are learning it as a conversation that's being had, a dialogue through touch.
Erin: For those who may not again have seen the exhibition, the exhibition is titled A Countervailing Theory and women Eshu are the ruling elite and they dominate the males, the Koba who as you say, are manufactured to serve them. And so, this expectation of touch is completely legal. It is completely unexpected. It is completely forbidden. Even if they do touch, it's not a gentle right. It's not a kind touch. And as we've talked about, the two protagonists, Akanke, whose name means ‘lovable at first sight’ and Aldo, whose name means ‘old’ or ‘wise’. In the U.S. and UK where we live respectively, power often plays itself out along lines of colour, race, ethnicity or nationality, and then class with gender as a secondary or tertiary concern. Which is why I think so many women scholars, particularly those of African descent, talk about and think about intersectionality, because there's this need for us to really ensure that all three are addressed at the same time. In A Countervailing Theory, the power dynamic at play is really primarily concerned with gender. So how did you narrow down, how did you determine that gender would be the way in which we understand the power dynamic?
Toyin: I think to countervail, obviously, the first thing I thought of was like, OK, we're in a predominantly globally patriarchal society. Nigeria is patriarchal. I didn't just think vis-à-vis like well, let's go all women. I actually always thought it was going to be a matriarchal society that dominated this world. I didn't even think of it as a reaction to patriarchy. However, in creating the Koba, I did come up with some, you know, how do I solve this in the story? Because I think that I can't just have men be like, oh, you know, it's like a revenge fantasy. I guess it's like, oh, they're just there to serve. I would like to think, you know what I mean? But it can get really reductive is what I mean. And I wanted it to be like, no, like there's layers to the power dynamics here. They serve them. They cultivate land. You know, they mine. They build weaponry for them, they have a function, it's not just like some kind of, you know, let's see men naked and women clothed, like I was trying to say, like, this is what happens. You know, when there's a group of people who work for another group of people, they're only specific function is all they know. So everything that they are is tied to that. They don't know of any other existence, as you obviously have a lot more freedom to be other people. The Koba do not. That was really what I was trying to get at in terms of the gender aspect of it. And no one really thinks about that.
Toyin: You know, it's like when you're constantly having to be subjugated, it means that you are only defined by a very restricted view. You don't have room to move. You can't do anything with it. The Eshu can do whatever they want. That's really what I was trying to get at. That's the power there.
Erin: Well, I think what's so interesting is that what you're proposing is a humanoid versus a human condition. I think it's often read within the context of being either male or female. But it's more complex. It's very complex. And that's for me is where the futuristic idea comes. What if we at some point have a population that is not human but is influenced by, manufactured by humans to serve us or to serve humans? How does that play out? And I think the question that you posed about how does the oppressor behave is one of the key questions that I think each one of the audience members is meant to consider and think about their role in all of these. How are we complicit?
Toyin: What are your blind spots? What are your biases that you bring to it? Because, again, it's like it's even more of them. Like what does the it's who the oppressor is because the person can be anyone, you know, the Eshu can be anyone. It's what you, when you start looking at them and thinking, oh I can relate to that, then it's like, OK, well what are you saying? Because that means that you are favouring the people who are hurting another people. So that's the thing that I was always trying to question.
Erin: Well, the title A Countervailing Theory is brilliant. And you've talked about this as, you know, a term that is equal power, but opposite effect. But it refers to a book by John Kenneth Galbraith entitled American Capitalism: The Concept of a Countervailing Power, written in 1952. It's interesting to me, again, that that notion of violence, that notion of extraction, that notion of the oppression is something that you've applied both to an ancient and a futuristic society not set in the UK, not set in the U.S., but then again, globalizing this issue. And saying that there are many ways in which we should always be thinking about that. One of the other things about the exhibition, which you must see to really experience, is that you have addressed the ecological, the economic, the social, the cultural and the sexual, all within the context of these 40 canvases that really do tell a story, which I think we've begun to unpack. But we should unpack a bit.
Toyin: The legacy of capitalism was always in my mind. That's why I wanted to use countervail, the word countervailing. And that essay, when I discovered it, countervailing power was like a godsend. All of it was, there were so many moments where I was doing the research for this that I felt like I was really blessed because that word encompasses so much. It's very specific but encompasses so much because so much of capitalism affects our daily life in every aspect. It can't just be seen from this historical lens of 1950s and like the creation of the concept of consumerism and how people can be sort of tied to a capitalistic model and how they feel about themselves and how they can live in the world. Because so much of what our world now is defined by, is people feel like they get validation from capitalism. People often say, oh, I just got to make that paper, then I'm going to be OK. They’re using capitalism to give them self-worth, which is ironic when that's not the purpose of capitalism ever. It was never the purpose of capitalism. And also, when you dig deeper, as we are black women, black bodies were capital - that exacerbated the process. That was - -- capitalism existed before that. But I think once you introduce bodies that had been indentured servants in feudal times, they had been all kinds of systems in place. That was what it became. And that was there for generations. And for some reason, people just kind of forget that because all of the systems in place, the concept of credit in America came from slavery. You had credit of slaves. That's how we now we use it for our credit cards, I mean, just think about this, like think about what how much the legacy of black bodies has become a striation in culture. Literally, and it affects everything. You can't get a loan now without thinking about the reference of how that leads. There's so many things. And so I loved when I found countervailing, I thought it was like this explains so much because of course, it has to be that something of equal force has to be countered by something else. That's the only way this is going to work and how often that is never used, how often that is fought against. They don't want it to be countervailing, this is America. They want it to be dominant. Only one dominant, you know, principle, one dominant narrative. Well, not to bring in another one and introduce it.
Erin: Well what is also your flipping of the script, as you have called it, is this way in which the counter, the oppositional force is listening, is love, is the risk to love, is the risk to listen. And in many ways is also that touch. So it is not an equal or opposite violence, which I think people often believe is the response and the way in which one might change the system. And I think within this exhibition, you propose that there are many ways that that the system, the striations might change, but that one of the most powerful might be listening and again-
Toyin: Dialogue. I mean, it's like there's all this I mean, we're right now in the age of protests, right. The resurgence of that. There's a lot of emphasis on destruction. People love to destroy things. It's very easy to destroy things, actually. It's very hard to build. That's what listening’s about because that means you can't talk. You genuinely have to let the person finish. Don't just, like, wait for them to finish so you can talk, really hear what they're saying, even if you don't like it, even if you don't necessarily agree with it because that builds things. You know, it creates, like, it's a negotiation, it builds upon and it creates a foundation for something else to come into the fore, because whenever everyone's just waiting to talk or everyone's just creating in order to destroy someone else's point, like, you know, that's why I can't stand debates. I can't stand that. That's not a dialogue.
Erin: But what's so interesting is obviously, an understanding. ‘A lesson in listening’ is the work in which a Akanke places her hand over her mouth, so she can listen to Aldo. And in this context, Akanke being the ruling class and Aldo being the oppressed class, it's the idea that one of the solutions is just to stop talking and listen long enough to understand what that context of oppression has meant, how you as oppressor are complicit, and how the oppressed feels based on having lived within this system.
Toyin: That piece was supposed to be A Countervailing Theory. That was the title. But then I was like, nah. And then I called it An Understanding because I feel like if anything can cross, like you mentioned, the social, the economic, the political order, it’s understanding. One of the reasons why I really wanted to talk to you Erin, was that we had a very deep conversation when I was working on this show about love. And I remember you were telling me something, oh, maybe I said it, where it was like, I don't think I like to hear someone say, I love you. I want them say I understand you’. That's so much more powerful to me than saying I love you.
That's what that piece is about, because for her to understand him, that completely disrupts everything. And that's, I think, really hard to arrive at because I think a lot of people come with their own ideas and their own things that they really hold on principles, beliefs, all of that stuff gets tied in and it's tied to how you feel you are. And it's like this is all I have is that. But when you let go of that and you open yourself up to understanding and less about ego and less about what you think, I have to place my claim in this. Even in a dialogue, something else is created, a new meaning, a new form is created, you know, from two opposite things. You know, we can get really a new space. I mean, we can get really like direct about and say like, oh, you're making a baby. That's what I did in this variable. But really what it is, is like a new understanding happened there from that moment when that piece happens - and of course, I double down with it, with Accepting Impermanence. You know, and then they're having a very long conversation, a different kind of conversation, but a very long and beautiful conversation, but in that, a new idea is formed, a new understanding is formed in the form of the twins and like.
Erin: But it's also the possibility of a different system. It's a third possibility.
Toyin: A third meaning. And that's what you want to aim for, as that's what countervailing, the activity of that brings. Two forces just come together and that's it. A new meaning comes from the two forces.
Erin: Well, what was so interesting to me is that I think people automatically respond to this idea of a woman led society or matriarchal society without really understanding what possibilities that opens up. And I think the current narrative around feminism can be a little polarizing for some people who haven't really experienced the possibilities of female leadership. But what I know to be true about you is that you're a voracious reader, as am I.
And I know that you've spent time thinking about Octavia Butler's work, thinking about Yaa Gyaasi, thinking about Chimamanda. But there, you know, also Audrey Lorde. Alice Walker coined the term Womanist in 1979 in her book Coming Apart. And I think we operate and I think as a way that one might understand the context of what's happening with the Eshu is that they are also very womanist. And a womanist society is one in which you restore the balance between people, environment and nature, reconciling human life through a third or spiritual dimension. And I wanted to kind of get your response to that idea because it feels as though it's something that is happening within the work. And as we talk about touch and the effect of touch, as we talk about the way in which this act of cunnilingus is-
Toyin: A new way of speaking. Right. And it's a conversation. I mean, listen, I wish that the issue were womanist. I do. But they're oppressors. I want them to in my heart, I sometimes drew them in a very favourable light. And I knew that I was my bias's being projected onto the pictures. There’s a few pictures where I'm like, oh, I'm being a little too, I'm giving them a little too much play because they're not great people. They're extracting a lot from the land. They're using the Koba to extract. They're using the Koba for a variety of means that are not healthy for the land. But at the same time, they're not bad people, you know. I mean, they do bad things. And so I feel like the womanist aspect is so powerful and aspirational and I want them to be that and that's there that I don't think that was, that's not the read that I got even as I was making it. I was like, they're still doing bad things. No, they're not thinking about the collective.
Erin: I romanticize it as a woman. As a woman, I ask myself, would we have to do that? It's a romantic notion.
Toyin: I always see I mean, listen, I'm always suspicious of people. Everyone’s ‘sus to me, you know, so I don't trust anybody. But that was my own issue. So, I would love for us to be womanist. I think, again, it has to be a combination right, back to that countervailing. Everything about countervailing is actually in how it's interpreted to not just in how I applied it in the show. You have to think about both sides of something. You have to think about what else could be factored in here. We can't completely remove men from the concept, you know, I mean, as much as they have done with women, is it better to be them as a woman? Again, I'm not thinking revenge fantasy. I'm thinking about can we go above that? Can we create something new from this? We know what's happened. We see how bad it is. We need to figure out a way to come together. The problem is they're not even listening to us. And that's why there's a lot of fear about women history and feminist theory, because they still don't listen. So, it's really not even worth saving.
Erin: As was demonstrated just the other night when the tagline was like ‘I'm speaking’. I mean to go back to the work. And really, I'm glad that you refuted that idea because it's I think it's something that people, as they go through the exhibition, should test for themselves, should think through and really understand what this option might present. It was a risk to present a body of work that featured women as the ruling class. And I wanted to think through this being your sixth museum solo exhibition.
Toyin: Oh, Jesus. That I did not know.
Erin: Right. And although you did the 12th Manifesta biennale in Palermo, this is your first international solo exhibition. And you did respond to The Curve, as you know, people have discussed with these forty drawings ranging from at their largest, 87 by 103 inches? Yeah, 13 by about 18 inches.
Toyin: I don't like to think about the number.
Erin: Well, again, for people who might be listening and may not be able to see it in terms of thinking through how vast and then how minimal in terms of size these works are, but how luscious and rich and textured and diverse, literally every one of those works is where they range from the embryo and one body at its very formative stages through to multiple bodies, literally dancing across what feels like these mountainous scapes and engaging with one another and one another's shadows. And so, you know, in this body of work, that is one of the risks. But you took other risks, whereas in ‘Untold stories’ at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis and as in ‘A matter of fact’, at the Museum of the African Diaspora in 2016, and then in most recently, ‘To Wander Determined’ at the Whitney and ‘Testing A Name’ at SCAD, all those bodies of work were rendered in colour and then a ballpoint pen and ink and coloured pencil and pastel. This is black and white. This is white chalk and pastel and charcoal on a black.
Toyin: Gesso Linen.
Erin: Yeah, I mean what you this is a huge risk and you took it overseas and let's just unpack that.
Toyin: I mean, I also can't be trusted to be consistent. I mean that's also part of it. I mentioned this before, but I really want to double down on this point. I think that if you as an artist are constantly defined by what you just did, you're in trouble. You kind of have to be afraid. You kind of have to risk if you're not even putting yourself in a place where you're not comfortable and you're not really feeling like you have an upper hand, you're I think you're in trouble as an artist. You're going to have to be in spaces that you're not entirely in command. I hadn't worked monochromatic in this way ever, especially the fact that I'm working on a on a black ground, let alone, you know, I done like it on black board, but I hadn't done like a painted Gesso linen ground and then like linen. I hadn't worked on linen ever.
So, I knew that I was going to have to get very uncomfortable, comfortable with being uncomfortable very quickly and understand that certainty was not going to be a factor anymore with this show. But that was also kind of the beauty of discovering it. You know, thing about like mining, we mentioned mining and archaeology and geology. That was part of the visual that that influenced that decision, because I thought if this is going to be something that is like unearthed from the ground, it's black was Basalts, black basalt, black shale, sorry, I thought about that visually and how that might look. And the whole idea of the scans, that was really what I was thinking when I was making, I was thinking, well, this will have to be scanned. It would have to be something that's like an impression on a surface. So that really gave me a lot of room and freedom to create texture play and created like a visual language. You have to understand, when I was doing this, I was also trying to discover who I was , I was trying to discover idiolect. Like, you know, I think after I did Whitney and all the shows that I understood at my mark was tinged by a certain traditional art historical canon of working. It was very Eurocentric and very pictorially pretty in that way and convenient in that way. And I wanted to understand, if I could, what is my idiolect? What is my vision. I know it's a strange word to use, but what is it like? What do I like to draw? What lines do I keep doing?
That was what I would put in the pictures because I would pay attention to them. I like OK, I like to do this mark a lot like this movement a lot with my hands or like if I'm working on something really large, why are these striations so tight? Because I could make the striations very far away, but for some reason I wanted them really tight. Why do I do that? Let's work with that. That becomes a language, that becomes a reason in the picture, that leads to another picture and that built the story over time. And what the beauty of having 40, as scary as it was, was that I could test out those marks that idiolect in every picture. So sometimes that they like would fail by like, I don't know, the tenth picture is like I'm not so great about that now. But the ones that remained was so educational to me, very instructive. It's like, why am I always doing that line? And of course, the one that always remained was the skin. The skin always had that layering and the marking in the history of those layers. And I just realized that this wasn't just something that I do. This is something that's me. It's like that's just who I am. That's how I see the world. And it was it was a gift of this show and working monochromatically because I think if I had colour, I would have been distracted or at least had too much colour. I would been distracted. Whereas when I'm focusing just on, you know, certain tones and gradations and line and texture that really honed in on my mark in my line, and it became, like I said, like an idiolect, something that I could reference and say, OK, this is me, this is me on some foundational level.
Erin: To reference those lines in that way in which this body of work is distinct, not just in terms of the monochromatic nature of it, but really the way in which you have that repetition that moves from the figurative at times into both landscape and then abstraction. And I think you and I talked at a certain point about an interest in and a way in which this idea of the landscape gave you options to think about abstraction differently. What did meaning the rocks and the hundreds of various kinds of rocks and algae and aloe and cactus and plant formations and bonsai trees and what feels like baobab trees, butut all of that moving outside of your previous way of engaging to thinking through what both that line and the possibility of erasure. I think the scan, as we talked about it, meant that you had to give age, not just texture, but age to these canvases and a weathered look. And I remember a moment of deep anxiety as I watched you.
Toyin: There were a lot of moments of anxiety-
Erin: But I felt as though you were erasing something. You moved across the canvas and I thought, what's going to happen to this image? And you said, don't worry, don't worry, don't worry.
Toyin: So that was ‘Altered Landscape’
Erin: Which is a work we will talk about in depth. But can you talk a little bit about I mean, that way in which you have now mastered, I think, working through not just landscapes with these various moments of abstraction within the canvas is how does that feel? Does it feel like a new part of your visual language? Does it feel like something that you had? Does it feel like you've mastered it? Does it feel familiar?
Toyin: I think that was something again, back to that idiolect. You know, like I think I was always there. I just didn't have an opportunity to get into that, to mind that in myself and in my work, you know, I think I was so concerned about the picture being really well constructed that I didn't realise that I may have these certain proclivities of mark, and I do have a tendency to go into the abstract.
I mean, you don't draw with the pen and ink works like in my early days, you don't draw like that without having some kind of abstract notion. So, like, I knew that I was like, OK, here I'm in an entirely different material, totally different monochromatic palette. Will this hold? You know, it's like you're questioning yourself. I was challenging myself. You know, I wasn't just, you know, having a countervailing theory of ideas. I'm to remember my own, like, ideas and principles and challenging them in the visual arena and in what I came from that was really helpful. So, yeah, I think that that was that expansion. But abstraction is something that I see in the figure all the time. I see it in the marks. You know, I mentioned earlier to Lotte, about how someone, I think it was Philip Glass describing Chuck Close’s work, that it's not just a portrait, it's an occasion for the marks to happen. I feel that way about the pictures. You know, they're an occasion for me to mark, you know, to create and to test ideas, do the marks and when you obviously limit the palette, but when you when you hone in on a palette in a monochromatic way, you really can get into the event of the marks and what is happening. And that's what I hope that the audience travels through when they when they go through the works. But yes, ‘Altered Landscape’ was a bit of an erasure, but I think by that point in the stage, I was just kind of like testing. I was still testing how far I could go with my marks, and that's where it was.
Erin: And let's talk about that. And just to clarify, because you do bring up a point that for those who may not have seen your other bodies of work, I think it bears repeating, is that you have worked in abstraction within the figures and certainly within their textures and clothing. It's all there. But then to think through again in this monochromatic body of work, how that looks in all of these works. For me, again, the figure ground relationship, this idea of the landscape that it's dual. So, you have what feels like plants and the shrubs and the trees and the cacti are really engaged so much with the actual figure that they the female body and the notion of territory seem to be working along the same lines. And I hate to use the word lines again as we just moved out of it, but they form the female body, it seems to itself be a territory, a nation, a space that you may enter and exit at will and that at times you could be exiled from.
I think there's this moment where Akanke and Aldo leave and they're away. They're away from everyone else's eyes. They're away from the rest of society. And they're able to engage in that privacy but feels like they then are in another land. And in fact, in the very last image, we see how they themselves become one melded body, one melded landscape, one melded territory, but in ‘Altered Landscape’ specifically, the shadow dissipates, the body dissipates, and three quarters of that image is landscape, three quarters of that image is the sky, the water.
Toyin: Well, everything is being washed away.
Erin: Everything is being washed.
Toyin: And one of the things that I was trying to I don't know if it's really evident in that moment as well as everything that the world is known of that point is washed away by that death. So, what comes out of it? That's why the tribunal is so important and why the summons that happens after is so important is because this act that has happened to this Eshu warrior, has affected the land so deeply that it has to be punished.
This is what I mean by like this idea of like you alter the landscape, the land you alter everything, histories, everything that comes with that land, and a new one is formed. But here's the thing. The new land is formed is coming from Aldo and Akanke, unbeknownst to everybody. You know, the thing is going to rebuild what was there before. That can't happen anymore. That's been destroyed by that altered landscape. So, from that moment on the landscape that we see at the end with Riyom Rock, the parable rock, that is the new land that Akanke and Aldo built together. But it takes a while to get there, you know, I mean, the erosion that's happening right now in central Nigeria, the erosion that happens to a lot of places of ancient and spiritual significance in the world, in colonized lands has been happening for so long. People don't realize that there's never been a summons in that sense, what has happened to these people? And so, what happens is land.
I think that that was my also, again, my way of trying to just give us something like we might not see it, you know, we might not see the promised land. I know we might not see it, but we have to believe it's coming. Because you can't just take and take and take and take. Just expect that it's not going to happen. We're in the middle of a climate change crisis, like this is going to be a reckoning and it will be an altered landscape across the globe. Are people going to recognize that and steer into a direction of preservation and conservation planting a seed, or are they going to do what they've been doing? And that's you know that moment comes you know, I'm not going to teach the audience what to think in that respect. They have to make that decision on their own because there are people who still don't believe in that.
Erin: No, but I think it becomes clear as you go through the images that there is a call to respond to climate change and change, ecological shifts and the effect of mining. As you say, there has not been a way in which people have been held accountable or tried, but then also that is unprotected land. So, we think about the notion of the unprotected sites, both in Nigeria with Jos Plateau but then also for Native Americans in the U.S. and for multiple types of original peoples in lands where the indigenous land.
Erin: It feels essential. We skipped over something that I think is worth returning to as we think about the female body. And that is it's adornment. We talked a little bit earlier as we walk through the exhibition, just about how, for me, there's the armour, right? So, there's the way in which you've engaged with contemporary fashion and contemporary designers. And that notion of the futuristic that they are clothes that people do not wear but that are extremely made with relationship to the ecological and to the environment, but also function as armour they are. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Toyin: Oh that’s athleisure. I mean, I'm just going to be real. I just kept thinking about, like, oh, they have boobs, you know, they're going to need something to keep them together and they're going to need something, you know? But I also didn't think, I mean it's also hot. So they're going to have to have certain things. The funny thing is, with the uniforms and the armour, I was really thinking about lightweight stuff and I was thinking - but I also love boots. I mean, come on, I had to get my boots. But then the thing that also is you notice with ‘Training for Compatibility’, is they have a circular cover because they're still training. And that came from seeing like art deco, sort of like halter tops. And that that came in from that. And then, of course, like everything else coming into it, like I was thinking about a bicycle shorts. I was thinking like different skirts for individualisation, certain women have different style skirts and that come over their bicycle shorts and of course, the bras and rest of it, but the staff and the earrings were key, so the staff is the weaponry that they use. It extends at will and comes in. It's almost like a you know, it's like a sci fi element in there. The earrings indicate adulthood.
Erin: So, they're not in all images.
Toyin: Right. So with ‘Training for Compatibility’ when they're kids, you don't see them with earrings. It's not until, God, it’s killing me what the title of this work is, but it's when you see Akanke, after she's been given her first weapon. So that piece is when you see her with her earrings for the first time. And that's like, you know, it's just like a nice little way to top it off to be like this is where she proceeds moving forward. But yeah. Like that that's there's all these moments like that throughout the show
Erin: ‘First signs’?
Toyin: Yes. First signs, first development, first weapon. That is when you see her become a full adult and you see that her clothing has changed. She's no longer wearing the circular thing. She's wearing like a bra, sort of like covering. And she has her skirt that's been made for her and her weapon and all the rest of it, her earrings and the shoe. You get to pick their earrings and all that stuff. So these are all things that are in there. But they were fun for me to build. So, yeah, those moments are really kind of nice little moments to show. But this is a fully formed civilization.
Erin: And it does feel that way. And it's so interesting because obviously you have an exhibition up now and that exhibition now at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York called ‘Tell Me a Story, I Don't Care If It's True’ has text. And so, again, it's another risk. It's another change. The scale is obviously much smaller than the body of work here, much more intimate. But in that body of work, you use text. And I'm wondering now that you have included text and you've told this story here without text, how?
Toyin: Well, technically there is text in this at the end, but
Erin: I meant alongside each image. I’m sorry-
Toyin: But I feel like that whole I mean, this all these forty works or one work in my mind, they're all one thing. They're not individualized. So, the text at the end of the pillar is sort of that, it’s the text that accompanies this one work that is composed of forty scenes, sort of like a graphic novel or a storyboard. So once you get to the end, that goes back to what we were discussing about our ideas around just not ideas with, you know, the reality of what's happening in central Nigeria, the reality of extraction and ecological disruption and erosion, capitalistic intervention, particularly from foreign bodies and investments, and how that is all tied into A Countervailing Theory as a whole.
And I think text has always been a part of my work, but I very rarely bring it out into the fore simply because I think there's a visual language that I like people to engage with first and to invest in first and to read first. And then there's the symbology of text that can kind of also be another added fictive layer for people, both of which act in tandem in the space in The Curve And I purposefully put it at the end for that purpose. I want you to go through reading the pictures, then you read the text. So, it's almost like you would read it like a label would, you know, or didactic text in a museum.
That's how I wanted it to operate and function in the space. But text for me is always there in my work. I'm always writing that I wrote the story out when I was doing the research. I spent like eight months just writing and then finally figured it out what I wanted to do, I think the audience is in all of that. I do want it to be there for me so that when I do engage in moments like the text in the pillar, it can have a function. It's a very specific and it's just the right framework for everyone. And then they can move out.
Erin: I think you're right. There is so much text within each one of these works that it can be read, and it should be read.
Toyin: It's visual.
Erin: It's is very visual text. I mean, I think when we discuss the adornment and when we discuss the ways in which the skin is treated, in ways in which the landscape is treated. Yeah, all of those are parts of your vocabulary, the touch in and of itself. There's one other element that I forgot to mention is we were discussing the altered landscape, but the shadow within each one of these works, the shadow is present somehow. And I think the shadow has multiple meanings, but the meaning that is most ever. It is the separation between the living self and then the self that is no longer operating the same way in the physical world, you want to talk about why the shadow was so important? Why did you use that particular element?
Toyin: How do you? I’ll end it on this… How do you encapsulate the essence of someone? Because there's a lot of surface play, literally, we've talked about the geological and all of these other things, the -isms. But then there's also this other imaginary that I wanted to give the audience. And I was wanting to give just young people who are seeing this. And it's this idea about what I want people to value of themselves, what they can claim for themselves, what they can keep. And that is your soul. It has so many meanings in different contexts, in different nations, different languages. But the soul and that spirit drives people whether they want to acknowledge it or not, whether they want to put up with religiosity to it or not, it's there.
We all know it to be true. A gut feeling, whatever you want to call it. I made it shadow in this show and in that it functions in a really interesting way because then it becomes a means for a much more psychological picture. And a lot of ways the very first picture you see of Aldo when he's having sort of like a psychological kind of moment when he's first born and he's well made, sorry, he's made, and he's contending with his existence, his shadow is seeping through everything because he's figuring out his soul is figuring out what he is and acclimation and placement. Same thing the shadow intersperses through the striated system of which they're being placed because they're trying to figure out what they are.
So, you know, it was my sort of like again, it's a text. It's something to be read, you know, when you see that in each picture and of course, an altered landscape, it dissolves because what is attacked, not the woman's body. It is her essence. It is her shadow that is attacked that is far more potent and far more profound than simply attacking her body, which honestly violence in the female body is already, to me so tiresome. So that becomes a function in the picture in the story as well. And I think that, you know, the only way I can, I'm trying my best to say that, the shadow is a very powerful moment in the story. It's something that carries through. And when there's absence of shadow is also very important because it means that the person is not acknowledging souls and acknowledging their internal, like, metaphysical weight. They're not really considering it or it's absent and it's been taken from them. So they don't have a soul. And so much of what you are and how you're defined, even if you are made, even if you are manufactured, even if you are subjugated, you have a soul. You still have that. No one can take that away from you. You know, that is still given to the Koba, you know, and it's seen it's something that is seen and it has a place in the world. It affects the landscape around them. So, it can't be denied. So, they try to take everything you want from you, but you have that.
Erin: Absolutely. Thank you. I could stay all day, every day. But I do think that there is a way in which the rhythm and the rhythm of your working and the way in which your marks have a rhythm to them. And each one of these 40 works in this undulating hang, which I mean,
Toyin: You know, I had to do all I had to do it.
Erin: To take us back to Japan and the Chinese-
Toyin: And the staccato, you know, just the endless real quick the hang came from Miles Davis seeing his one of his music recordings because he was one of the few musicians that could read music. Right. He was like one of the few. And I remember seeing one of his sheets, music sheets. And I thought, oh, that's so beautiful. And that's how I did. I sent the mock-up to Charlotte. I'm like, have a field day with this one guy.
Erin: Well, between the changing wall colour and the undulating hang and the works themselves, I am so honoured and humbled to have been able not just to see it here, but to be able to have this conversation with you, I think on behalf of the audience and curators and everyone who will see this exhibition. Thank you so much for your rigour. Thank you so much for your attention to detail. Thank you so much for your commitment to this practice and to expanding our understanding of the possibilities of humanity.