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The power of storytelling: Toyin Ojih Odutola

Black and white drawing of two figures kissing
6 Jul 2020
3 min read

Toyin Ojih Odutola’s drawings conjure complex human stories.

Seeing Ojih Odutola’s drawings in the flesh is an intimate experience – there is something distinctive about the way she transforms the surface of the paper or canvas into a textured creation through layering and blending the drawing materials she uses, whether pen, pencil, charcoal, pastel or chalk. When you are able to view the works up close and in person, you can see the intricate details that articulate each character, landscape or interior. The longer you spend with each drawing, the more these details encourage you to develop backstories and interpretations of the scenes within them.

Ojih Odutola’s Curve commission, A Countervailing Theory, is her debut UK exhibition and we have been excitedly awaiting the moment when it would be possible to open the show after it was postponed during the Barbican’s temporary closure due to the coronavirus pandemic. The exhibition was created specifically for the space, and sees Ojih Odutola crafting an epic narrative of an imagined ancient myth set in central Nigeria, depicting a society dominated by female rulers and served by male labourers. It is an exploration of social hierarchies and the consequences of transgressing power dynamics. The story unravels across the 90-metre stretch of the gallery, each of the 40 new works charting an episode, akin to a graphic novel writ large on the walls. Ojih Odutola exclusively uses drawing materials, and this commission marks her first experiments working on a linen canvas, while also restricting herself to a monochrome palette – a striking contrast to her recent works on paper using saturated colours. She has also collaborated with conceptual sound artist Peter Adjaye for the commission, who has responded to her work with an immersive soundscape that evolves throughout the space as the story unfolds. This result is ‘more than simply a solo exhibition, but an experience’, she says.

The longer you spend with each drawing, the more these details encourage you to develop backstories and interpretations of the scenes within them.

Born in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, in 1985, Ojih Odutola moved with her family to San Francisco and then Alabama as a child, and now lives and works in New York. She earned her BA from the University of Alabama in Huntsville and her MFA from California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Her work has been shown at galleries across the USA, Brazil, South Africa and Italy, and she has attracted fans including musician Solange Knowles and actor Russell Tovey.

Her most celebrated exhibition to date was her solo show at New York’s Whitney Museum in 2017. To Wander Determined was the second of a three-chapter tale involving two fictional Nigerian aristocratic families, united through their sons’ marriage to each other.

Creating multi-layered stories through a series of beautifully and meticulously executed drawings, the trilogy is emblematic of her style. Ojih Odutola’s creative process is varied – sometimes she allows the marks she makes to suggest stories to her, while on other occasions she builds a narrative through notes and sketches, then bringing it to life on paper.

Scenes of Exchange, made for the contemporary art biennial Manifesta, held in Palermo in 2018, was a small series that took the global diversity of Palermo as its starting point. Ojih Odutola depicted scenes of imagined daily life that explored the presence of West African objects and people in Italy, highlighting the histories of trade and exchange between these cultures.

Woven into her earlier works are stories of identity and belonging, highlighted with striking clarity in The Treatment (2015). This portrait series of famous and powerful (white) men such as Prince Charles and Benedict Cumberbatch used stark black and white ink and pencil drawings to question individuality and white privilege, making them almost unrecognisable by densely detailing their faces in black ink while leaving their hair and clothing sketchy and unfinished. The uniformity that these portraits take on prompts the viewer to think about, as Ojih Odutola notes, ‘how an individual can claim one’s identity when rendered in the sameness of a group.’

Ojih Odutola spent more than eight months researching and developing the narrative for A Countervailing Theory before starting to create the series. Add in a delay due to the coronavirus pandemic, and we can say this exhibition will definitely have been worth waiting for.

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