Though she’s conceived four solo shows with New York’s Jack Shainman Gallery in as many years — her latest, Of Context and Without, which opens this week — Toyin Ojih Odutola has always felt that ‘there was this period where people weren't getting the work,’ she says. ‘They weren't getting the narrative.’
While that may be true, the Nigerian-born, New York-based artist’s hypnotic, ballpoint pen ink and charcoal figurative drawings have earned her spots in the Studio Museum in Harlem’s FORE and Black: Color, Material, Concept surveys and the To Be Young, Gifted and Black group show Hank Willis Thomas curated at Johannesburg’s Goodman Gallery. She’s also been the focus of solo shows at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis and the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art.
‘To be black today is exhausting enough, but then to be a black image-maker, I have two choices: I can address this frustration that I’m feeling, not just as an artist but as a person, and engage in that in my work,’ says Ojih Odutola, who was upset with the ‘quick reads’ her work was getting. ‘A lot of times you look at a black woman’s work, people think it has to be about certain things, so I really wanted to play with identifying things. I really wanted to confuse people.’
As such, Of Context and Without begins with a group of works made with white charcoal on blackboard. ‘What I really loved is that when you use black as a demarcating tool and replace it with white it suddenly makes things really, really slippery and people get uncomfortable because they can’t delineate anything,’ she says. ‘All of a sudden this idea of context is very suspect and the content becomes unreliable.’ To wit, an image of a black runway model is rendered in white charcoal (and somewhat extra-terrestrial).
There are also grayscale figures with shimmering (seemingly pupil-less) eyes that confuse form and image even further, allowing the artist to address race and blackness on the continent with a twist on her iconic pen-and-ink drawings. ‘People expect me to draw black people and obviously that’s not helping the situation, people are still getting killed and mistreated, and that’s not what I want to address. I want to address the image of blackness that society can’t seem to address properly.’
After seeing a commentator on a CNN panel discuss the problem of seeing images of Michael Brown as a concept — instead of a person — ‘that hit me like a ton of bricks. We’re not even looking at all these people, we’re just seeing them as ideas,’ says Ojih Odutola. ‘Once you put blackness on someone you don’t even see them, the blackness is an obfuscating element that obstructs anything that’s behind.’ To redirect the conversation she began a series of drawings, dubbed The Treatment, of famous white men — whose identities she prefers not to reveal — with black faces and simple pencil outlines for their hair and clothes that transform these iconic visages into anonymous mugs.
‘The reason for my seeming evasiveness towards readily identifying things is because it feels like the act itself is a disservice,’ says Ojih Odutola. ‘To immediately identify means to give a swooping read, something singular and not at all multifaceted, which is what the actually mark-making of my work has always been about: the multifaceted nature of people, things, and situations.’ Two dozen of these are installed at Shainman’s 20th Street gallery.
In one final play on identity, the artist’s includes renderings of herself. One is a white charcoal self-portrait that was titled Subway Selfie (Or be Thankful to Exist), which addresses the need to capture ourselves. The second is larger-than-life-sized marker piece of a nude Ojih Odutola, originally titled What’s on offer but is now called The Object is the Technique + The Technique is the Object (after a Francis Bacon quote).
‘I love the idea of that quote because it’s about image and not about me. I want the marks to be the subject,’ she says, admitting, ‘I'm exposing a lot in this show. In particular, I'm exposing my process but I am doing this because I want people to see what I see in the makings of these works that often doesn't get shown in the final product. It's like I'm welcoming them into my studio for a moment with each drawing.’