Toyin Ojih Odutola defies conventional portrayals of black bodies
Photography: Bjarne x Takata
TOYIN OJIH ODUTOLA IN NEW YORK, OCTOBER 2017. MAKEUP: SEONG HEE PARK USING MAC/JULIAN WATSON AGENCY. SPECIAL THANKS: THE WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART.
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s drawings unfold like stories. One enters her world through a main character, but that’s just an access point; the 32-year-old, Nigerian-born, Alabama-raised artist uses figuration as a tool for dissecting larger social structures. “I am an investigative artist, so for me the black figure is a medium,” she says. “What I’m trying to do is show you that you can use black bodies in a way that explores ideas, rather than simply the condition of blackness.” Not long after moving to New York in 2013, Ojih Odutola made pen and ink works that avoided the usual depictions and conventions of portraying black skin by creating figures with bright reflective hues.
More recently, she has been making portraits of imaginary characters as a starting point for discussions about place. In a 2016 solo show at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora, she delved into the luxurious homes of two fictional Nigerian aristocratic families. Currently, Ojih Odutola has a show of 17 pastel and charcoal drawings at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art that follows these figures as they travel through an ambiguous and shifting global landscape. In one life-size work, Nigerian jungles bleed into Tuscan hills. “So much of the historical narrative has been about black bodies being forced to travel,” she says. “I was trying to see if I could depict an adventurous spirit and a lack of fear about moving through the world, and not being afraid of the space you occupy.”