Toyin Ojih Odutola: The Firmament

Posted on June 01, 2018 by John Stomberg, Virginia Rice Kelsey 1961s Director

In her recent work, Toyin Ojih Odutola has created a possible Nigeria, one whose inhabitants thrive, having long ago arrived at a state of comfort unfettered by the enduring legacy of colonization. “Why not?” she asks. Why not imagine an alternative and natural historical progression of a Nigerian royalty? Her cast, the stars in her firmament, enjoy old wealth. They are comfortable in trappings of their own design. They have neither need nor desire to prove anything. Their station is assured and assumed. 

For the works in Firmament, Ojih Odutola explores the worlds of two old-line families, the UmaEze Amara and the Obafemi, who have become one through the marriage of their sons. The portraits on display are understood as part of the family collection shared now for the sake of this exhibition. Through the individuals she portrays, and the settings they inhabit, we gain access to a private realm. Newlyweds on Holiday, 2016, anchors the story, this couple’s union has brought the two families together. The two young men appear to stop just long enough for a quick portrait. They reveal their relationship in a manner as unaffected as their pose—they casually touch hands, and their feet abut. Their clothes set a tone of nonchalant elegance that is reinforced by the opulence of their setting. Despite being bold, colorful, and dynamic, their fashionable attire seems unaffected.

Ojih Odutola uses bright color and bold pattern, often in large scale, to depict her subjects. She establishes a compassionate confrontation with her viewers. Through the use of scale she reinforces her subjects’ presence, and through her remarkable mark-making technique she draws us close to her surfaces. Many of the drawings are life-sized, and some are full-length. This adds an uncanny sense that we share a space with her subjects and furthers the imaginative leap her viewers take into her world.

While short on specifics and long on allusion, the recent drawings foreground these possible stories. The narratives Ojih Odutola evokes suggest a wide emotional range. We are not meant to know exactly what takes place among these people, but we are invited into their private spaces, and we share an implied intimacy with many of them. She catches her characters at quiet moments, captured from otherwise rich and complex lives. She allows us to peek, but not pry, into their experiences.

In Surveying the Family Seat, 2017, the artist extends the overarching tone of aristocratic nonchalance in her subjects, modifying an established art historical trope. She borrows the basic arrangement from colonialist portraiture: a man stands in the foreground with an extended landscape visible in the background. The setting amplifies the title—he is the master of this vast domain. The man looks out on the landscape, the fertility of which is revealed by the careful rows of verdant growth. While he dresses more comfortably than the Euro-American forebears typically portrayed in this style, he does not wear a worker’s clothes. He is a gentleman farmer. Attending to management, not labor, he appears long accustomed to his station in life.

With this latest series, Ojih Odutola has crafted an entire alternative history that is complex and consistent in its narrative evocations. She has imagined a totally different past for the people who live in her current work. What if Nigeria had been allowed to progress on its own, without the catastrophe of colonization? With this supposition in the background, she picks up the story today. Her characters affect the insouciance that comes from inherited wealth and a life largely devoid of worry. They live with styles and designs that have evolved naturally from generations of Nigerian elites constantly refining from within their own traditions. They occupy a country of their own devising that clearly benefits from peace and prosperity. 

In many ways, Ojih Odutola’s visions connect her work to a wide range of writers, from novelists to comic book authors. Hers is an approach that uses fiction as a vehicle to address the malleability of history and power, as well as identity and politics. In her work, the past, history itself, becomes a medium to be formed—or reformed. While more implied than delineated, the back-story she creates rewrites the story of Africans brutally enslaved. Ojih Odutola uses the present to measure the past and to demonstrate the depth of the tragedy that was—and is—in play. Underlying her work, we find a theme that is both direct and provocative: it did not need to be this way.

Ojih Odutola dares to present a fantastical contemporary vision while avoiding the trappings of utopianism. The family she imagines has not been spared the weight of human life, just the oppression of ignorance. Her Nigeria engages with the world as witnessed in Representatives of State. There is an acknowledgement of responsibility to be good world citizens. Those individuals portrayed by Ojih Odutola have not suffered colonization, and have achieved a higher level of social cultivation and civility than their real-world oppressors.

It may be irresistible to future scholars to make the connection between Ojih Odutola’s art and the historical moment in which it was introduced. They will refer to the vast attendance at cinemas debuting The Black Panther in the winter of 2018; the resurrection of non-interventionism in American politics in 2017; and the context of political divisiveness and racial tensions that followed the election of 2016. This is the cauldron, social, political, and cultural, into which Ojih Odutola has added her voice. She has posed questions with her drawings. She asks her viewers to consider how conceptions of race are established and promulgated. She demonstrates how those very conceptions can and do shape experience. Her work is elaborate, provocative, poetic, and charged—revealing the details of these people’s lives while only alluding to their lived experience. Ultimately, Ojih Odutola’s Firmament reminds us both of “what could have been” and “what should be”—a world where difference, individualism, compassion, and civility are the norm and not distant ideals.