“Aristocracy,” Proust observed, “is relative.” A master of double entendre, Proust’s bon mot offers more than one interpretation. Aristocracy, in a very literal sense, is a matter of whom your relatives are.
However, Proust also gestures toward the conditional nature of societal station; one’s position in life is always measured against, and often by, another’s.
For Toyin Ojih Odutola, an artist who has long mined familial archetypes for creative impetus, the myth of the aristocracy is a conceit through which to examine complex themes of race, privilege, and power. In her current exhibition at the Whitney Museum, “To Wander Determined”— her first solo museum show in New York— Ojih Odutola weaves together a fictitious narrative about two aristocratic Nigerian families, the House of Obafemi and the UmuEze Amara Clan, in a series of richly colored, intricately textured, life-size charcoal, pencil and pastel drawings.
Noting in an interview that the respective families portrayed in the show are an “invention of my choosing,” Ojih Odutola remarked: “As someone whose personal narrative has been defined by forced migration since childhood, what we are seeing with ‘To Wander Determined’ feels emblematic.”
Born in Nigeria, Ojih Odutola and her family emigrated to America when she was five, settling in Huntsville, Alabama, where her father was a professor at Alabama A&M University. “Nigeria holds some mystery to me, there is so much I just don’t know,” she said, adding that her work often becomes an attempt to connect to it. While Nigeria’s influence on the artist and her works is, in her own words, “beyond the factual,” her experiences growing up in the South have had very tangible effects. She has spoken openly of her encounters with racism as a child and found early on that art was a means for her to confront its insidious effects, a powerful current that still exists in her work. “I hope to create works that allow for people to understand the feeling of oppression and powerlessness,” she said, “and how we can liberate ourselves and others from that stifling terrifying place.”
The first signs of a more informed artistic liberation began to manifest during Ojih Odutola’s college years. While attending the California College of the Arts, where she received her Master of Fine Arts in 2012, she began creating intricate, layered portraits using pen and ink. The decision to work with the medium was two-fold. In part, the choice was economic: Pens were the supplies she could afford. On a deeper level, Ojih Odutola’s affinity for pens is connected to her passion for writing — both the physical act and the creation of stories. Indeed, Ojih Odutola notes that writers like Octavia E. Butler and James Baldwin (“his words always light the fire under my ass”) are deeply influential to her.
In early drawings, such as her selfportrait, “Whenever the Occasion Arises,” (2012) Ojih Odutola renders subjects with a density of ink and marker that pushes the blackness of the sitter’s skin to the fore, layering intricate line-work and details on top of each other. “I zeroed in on the skin as the marker, the id, and the access point,” she noted, expressing that for her, “texture is a form of language,” with various marks and formal flourishes akin to “an accent or a dialect.” The density of her compositions is, in many ways, a visual analogy for what Ojih Odutola sees as the accumulation of personal biography, the physical manifestation of the layered narratives that we construct — and that are constructed — around us.
That linking of skin and skin color with biography and historical narratives locates Ojih Odutola’s works — intentionally or not — within the complex discussion of race and art in America today, connecting her to a lineage of artists that includes the likes of Kara Walker and Lorna Simpson.
For Ojih Odutola, the issue underscores a long-standing double standard. “In the present state of the art world,” she said candidly, “what I am becomes the only, overarching narrative, which leaves little room for anything else.” “Surely, what I am,” she continued, “informs my work, as it does any artist — but it is only a part of it.” When she was asked for her thoughts on the artist’s statement Kara Walker penned to accompany her most recent show at Sikkema Jenkins gallery (Walker in part remarked, “I am tired, tired of standing up, being counted, tired of ‘having a voice’), Ojih Odutola’s response was adamant: “It’s a rather peculiar experience,” she confessed, “that of being seen as exceptional despite the very nature of how you are placed and relegated by, and in, society.”
Ojih Odutola’s reaction to an exceptionalism grounded in exclusion seems to have resulted, in part, with a series of works featuring the UmuEze Amara Clan, who first appeared in her 2016 exhibition “Matter of Fact,” at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. A marked departure from her earlier monochromatic works in pen and marker, the pieces in the MOAD exhibition featured bright, vibrantly colored works incorporating charcoals, pastels and ink. As in “A Grand Inheritance” and “Newlyweds on Holiday” (both 2016), Ojih Odutola’s subjects are depicted in environments that featured luxurious surroundings and the trappings of wealth. Just as blackness had, in her earlier works, defined her subjects, Ojih Odutola was keen to examine the ways in which wealth did the same, ultimately, with the aim of “usurping archaic presentations of and notions about wealth.”
In many ways, the artist views “Matter of Fact” as a primer for “To Wander Determined,” introducing a second family— the House of Obafemi — into her grander narrative of Nigerian aristocracy.
That Ojih Odutola should choose the concept of aristocracy — and by default, family — as a conceit through which to question and redefine assumptions of selfhood and social status is apt. As the historian and writer Stephanie Coontz notes in “The Social Origins of Private Life,” family is the “place where we conceptualize ourselves in relation to the social structure.” In the case of Ojih Odutola, family, it would seem, is truly is what you make of it. MP
This article appears in the October 2017 edition of Modern Painters.