Artist Talk with Toyin Odutola at the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art
December 7, 2013
(Public Q & A Session)
THE ART ASSIGNMENT, Episode 3. Intimate, Indispensable GIF
PBS Digital Studios
Published 13 March 2014
In which The Art Assignment visits New York-based artist Toyin Odutola and receives the challenge to create a GIF! But not just any GIF--it must articulate something intimate that is indispensable to you.
EPISODE 03 INSTRUCTIONS:
1. Think of something intimate that is indispensable to you. (It doesn't have to be a body part. It can be an object, place, memory, anything.)
2. Depict it in the form of a GIF. You don't have to make drawings—you can use photographs, make a sculpture, or whatever you like.
3. Upload and share it online using whatever social media platforms you prefer, being sure to tag it with #theartassignment so we can find it.
4. Fame and glory. (Your response might be included in a future episode.)
Find and follow Toyin online: @obia_thethird, toyinodutola.com and learn more about her work here: http://www.jackshainman.com/artists/toyin-odutola
theGrio’s 100: Toyin Odutola, creating groundbreaking images with a ballpoint pen
January 31, 2014
Who is Toyin Odutola?
Toyin Odutola is a fine artist who is capturing widespread attention through her mesmerizing portraits rendered in the humble media of paper and ball point pen. Named to Forbes‘ 30 Under 30 list in the category of Art & Style as one to watch in 2012, Odutola has seen her pieces grace the covers of art world magazines — and even boasts fabulous friends such as Beyoncé’s sister Solange Knowles.
Why is she on theGrio’s 100?
How did she meet Ms. Knowles? By selling out a show of her unique pieces that depict the complexity of black heritage and identity through figures whose skin seem to pulse on the page with personality, energy and history. Solange just had to have one, and commissioned a piece of her own, so compelling is Odutola’s work.
The Nigerian-born artist, who was raised in Alabama, has a powerful message that she expresses in these pieces, through which she is becoming a force to be reckoned with. No small feat for a young woman who just graduated from the California College of the Arts in 2012.
“Where some may see flat, static narratives, I see a spectrum of tonal gradations and realities,” she said in an artist’s statement on her web site. “What I am creating is literally black portraiture with ballpoint pen ink. I’m looking for that in-between state in an individual where the overarching definition is lost. Skin as geography is the terrain I expand by emphasizing the specificity of blackness, where an individual’s subjectivity, various realities and experiences can be drawn onto the diverse topography of the epidermis. From there, the possibilities of portraying a fully-fledged person are endless.”
What’s next for Odutola?
Odutola will be featured in numerous exhibitions in 2014, including a solo show at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York City — one of the hottest galleries in the business at this time. Now a resident of Brooklyn, we look forward to her continued reconfiguration of blackness in dynamic compositions that delight, excite and make viewers think.
Follow Toyin Odutola on Twitter @obia_thethird.
Ballpoint Magic: Making Cutting-Edge Art with Ballpoint Pens
by Trent Morse
Last August, Toyin Odutola brought a stack of ballpoint pens and markers into the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, sat down, and drew a picture. A large screen projected her progress as she filled the paper with thousands of marks. Museumgoers circled around her and asked her questions. “One lady was like, ‘Is that pen? I don’t believe it!’” Odutola recalls. “I was drawing, and she took the pen out of my hand and looked at it.”
To shut out these kinds of distractions and focus on the task at hand, Odutola put on headphones and listened to dance music. Four hours after she started drawing, she was done, having produced a densely limned portrait of an Asian woman with golden hair and eyebrows, her skin composed of Odutola’s signature sinewy ballpoint lines, with blue, green, and flesh tones rising from underneath. “It was shocking that I finished, because I’d never really performed drawing,” says Odutola, who was born in Nigeria and grew up in the Bay Area and Alabama. “It’s normally a very solitary act within my studio.”
Fortunately for Odutola, she has been in plenty of other exhibitions over the last year that haven’t required her to perform for a crowd. She had a solo show at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, where she’s now based, and her ballpoint drawings have made appearances at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Menil Collection in Houston, and the Chinese Cultural Center of San Francisco and are now at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts in Brooklyn (through January 19).
She was also included in “Ballpoint Pen Drawing Since 1950” at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, which placed the 28-year-old Odutola at the tail end of a succession of creators who have embraced the lowly ballpoint pen as a serious tool for making art. The others in the show were Alberto Giacometti, Alighiero Boetti, Il Lee,Jan Fabre, Martin Kippenberger, Bill Adams, Joanne Greenbaum, Russell Crotty, Rita Ackermann, and Dawn Clements. But curator Richard Klein traces the genesis of ballpoint art back to Argentina in the 1940s.
The ballpoint pen was first patented in 1888 as a device for jotting on leather. It wasn’t developed as a writing tool until 50 years later, when the Hungarian journalist László Bíró had the idea of putting fast-drying newspaper ink into a pen with a tiny ball at the tip that would allow the ink to flow evenly. Then came World War II, and Bíró escaped to Argentina in 1941, taking his invention with him. Manufacture of the pens began in Buenos Aires soon afterward.
Lucio Fontana also moved to Argentina in the early ’40s. He was born in that country in 1899 but spent a large part of his life in Italy, where he had come under the influence of the Futurists and shared their obsession with cutting-edge technology. “Fontana was the first artist to use ballpoint pen, in 1946,” Klein says. “The pen was heavily promoted in Argentina, and I’m sure it’s no coincidence that he was using ballpoint pen in the same place where Bíró had invented it.” Those early ballpoint sketches reflect Fontana’s interest in merging art, science, and technology through his Spatialist movement. In one drawing, Fontana doodled a spiraling funnel filled with swirling orbs, as if he were testing the continuous-flow quality of the new pen.
Soon, the ballpoint spread to Europe and the United States, thanks in large part to the clear-plastic Bic Cristal. It was cheap, portable, and reliable, and it didn’t smudge or blot as much as fountain pens did. It also produced uniform lines, making it a quintessentially modernist tool. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, Giacometti, Jean Dubuffet, Agnes Martin, Andy Warhol, Nam June Paik, Yayoi Kusama, John Cage, Sigmar Polke, Louise Bourgeois, and many other artists sketched with ballpoint pen. Cy Twombly incorporated it into his doodle-and-text works, and “the Fluxus artists used all sorts of office materials, including ballpoint pens, tape, stamps, and typewriters,” says Scott Gerson, associate conservator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Perhaps the first person to use the ballpoint as the primary medium in a major work of art was Alighiero Boetti. Starting in the early ’70s, the Italian artist employed dozens of helpers to fill sheets of paper with solid fields of black, blue, or red ink. His 1973 piece in the Aldrich show consisted of eleven such panels, all with “ONONIMO”—a wordplay on the Italian terms for anonymous, homonymous, and eponymous—etched from white negative space at the top. “The blue in this work is really extraordinary,” says Klein. “The pieces are really well preserved. Other Boettis were not—they are faded.”
Which brings up the biggest problem with ballpoint ink: preservation. “Early ballpoint-pen ink, especially the blue, would fade if you exposed it to the light. It’s not permanent,” Klein says. “That’s because most of the inks are dye-based colorants, which are susceptible to color-shift or fading,” says Gerson. Today, many professional artists buy pens containing archival inks, but “really, the only reliable thing is to keep it out of the light,” Gerson adds.
In the decades since Boetti’s collaborations, the ballpoint has become increasingly absorbed into the art world, and like all artists today, ballpointists aren’t hindered by style or scale. Jan Fabre spent a decade working with the pens, which culminated in his covering an entire Belgian castle in blue ballpoint marks in 1990. Russell Crotty makes large grids of small scenes of the shifting California landscape, the ocean, and astronomical phenomena, and he also draws these things onto globes. In Boston, Joo Lee Kangportrays animals and plants in the style of Victorian naturalists and sometimes converts her drawings into wallpaper or crumpled-paper sculptures. Renato Orara, who recently showed at Josée Bienvenu Gallery in New York, smoothly renders any object that catches his eye: a wire brush, a wristwatch, a broken umbrella, a leather jacket. “I don’t try to make things look real,” he says. “An art writer once pointed out that I use realism, but only as a strategy for smuggling something else.”
In Asia, some artists use ballpoint to riff on venerated ink traditions. One such piece appears in the show “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (through April 6). That work is Liu Wei’s 24-leaf accordion album Untitled No. 6 “Flower” (2003), which contains painted and drawn Chinese landscapes and giant peonies next to “naked figures with exaggerated genitalia,” says Maxwell K. Hearn, the Met’s chief curator of Asian art. These mixed-media scenes are embellished with “scratchy lines that are ballpoint pen,” Hearn adds. “They’re scribbles. You could miss them.”
You couldn’t miss the scribbles in the work of Il Lee, who, since 1981, has been filling canvas and paper with abstract, woolly lines that progress from wispy to murky. The Korean-born, New York–based Lee, who’s represented by Art Projects International in New York, is a ballpoint purist, meaning he goes through a lot of ink. “I usually use anywhere from 100 to 120 or more ballpoint pens on large canvas works,” he says. For his 2007 solo show at the Queens Museum of Art, he emptied 600 blue ballpoint pens to make a 50-foot-long drawing that snaked along the wall.
Like Lee, Italian artist Angiola Gatti, who had her U.S. debut at New York’s Ryan Lee gallery last fall, scrawls with ballpoint to form abstract masses and voids. Gatti says she works on a “corporeal, one-to-one” scale, drawing on vertical canvases that are roughly the size of her body. She likes how intimately close to the artwork ballpoint brings her, and sometimes she presses the pen so hard that the “canvas is nearly carved.”
Marlene McCarty, who shows at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. in New York, also draws on large surfaces, but her work is highly figurative and psychologically charged, populated by sexualized adolescent girls and great apes. To her, the blue ballpoint pen reflects what high-school girls use for homework and for “doodling on their notebooks,” and it’s the preferred tool for “primate fieldwork.” However, McCarty is not as romantic as Gatti when it comes to the physicality of ballpoint. “For the scale of my drawings, it’s a horrible, tedious, painful medium,” she says. “Ballpoint is unforgiving. It can’t be corrected. I draw on the wall. Unless the pen is held at just the right angle, it stops working. The pressure required to keep the ink flowing causes shoulder injuries.”
“Ballpoint-pen drawing can be extremely labor-intensive and time-consuming because the mark it makes is linear,” says Dawn Clements, who shows at Pierogi in Brooklyn. “I make tonal drawings, so my drawings often take a very long time.” Clements describes her patched-together panoramas of the inside of her home and movie sets as life-size “sketchbooks.” As with McCarty, the medium mirrors the content in Clements’s works, which can run more than 40 feet long. Ballpoint is, she says, “a common domestic implement used to express my experience of domestic life and melodramatic movies that depicted domestic familial situations.”
The domesticity of the pen helps explain its mass appeal as an art material. “All of us touch a ballpoint pen practically every day,” Klein says. There are now photorealist draftsmen from outside the art world whose pictures have gone viral on the Internet, such as Samuel Silva, a Portuguese lawyer living in London. Though, inexplicably, the curator adds, the Aldrich exhibition might be the first museum roundup of ballpoint art, and that show featured only eleven artists in a 1,400-square-foot gallery.
As for which brand of pen is best, it depends on who you ask. “Joanne Greenbaum uses Schmidts that are made in Germany,” Klein says. Crotty likes the Swedish Ballograf. Odutola and Clements both use Paper Mates. Lee says he formerly favored Paper Mate but noticed changes in the “chemistry of the ink.” Lately, he’s been on a Bic kick.
Gatti goes for Bic, Staedtler, and Pilot, while Orara imports his Pilots from Japan. McCarty prefers the blue Montblanc that is designed for “signing important documents.” However, she adds, “they are too heavy to hold upright against the wall for hours at a time, so I take a Montblanc ballpoint refill, force it into a cheap lightweight plastic Bic pen handle, tape the whole thing together, and use that.”
Peter Saul, who has been drawing and painting his funky, freaky, cartoony characters for over half a century and now shows his work at Mary Boone Gallery in New York, says, “I only use black, and I never pay attention to the brand.” AndYoshitomo Nara claims that when it comes to drawing his Kute Kulture figures, “I’m fine with the kind of pen you find on your hotel desk.”
Trent Morse is senior editor of ARTnews.
PEN PUSHER: TOYIN ODUTOLA -- The pen is mightier than the sword in this artist’s deft hands
by Larry Ossei-Mensah
7 January 2014
Since graduating from the California College of the Arts in 2012, Toyin Odutola’s trajectory has been on a significant uptick. The Nigerian-born, Brooklyn-based artist has been included among Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list of notable names in art, been featured on Nowness with gal pal Solange Knowles and now has her first major solo exhibition, The Constant Wrestler, at the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art (IndyMoCA). These well-deserved accolades all stem from her visually arresting portraits, which are almost all created using a humble ink pen. KISUA sits down with Odutola to discuss the issues of nationhood she addresses with her work.
What is the theme of the show at IndyMoCA?
The exhibition is meant to inspire a dialogue in Midwestern Indianapolis that had not been explored in an art exhibition there before. Being that I am still a young artist, it allows for people to explore what the curator Shauta Marsh and I hoped would be a conversation around how incorporative, changeable and inventive "identity" as a concept and a reality can be. The exhibition is very open, allowing people to interpret the work in a variety of ways.
You’re also part of Six Draughtsmen, a group show at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA). What’s the concept?
Six Draughtsmen celebrates female draughtswomen of color. We all share a connection to Nigeria in heritage, culture, birth, and/or influence. To highlight a field in art – drawing - that is still seen in academia and the art world as substandard to painting and sculpture is a major statement and I commend MoCADA for supporting it. There's a refreshing and dynamic camaraderie in this show. I hope for more exhibitions focussing on this kind of intimate take on different facets of art making.
How much does your Nigerian heritage inform your work?
My being Nigerian already comes with so much richness and depth, all I wish to do is add to that; to mould it and reconstruct it, and most importantly, realize that all of that is a foundation to build upon to create something new. That also means distancing myself, respectfully and intellectually, from what has been done before. It should not limit me in creating the works I desire making. In the end, whatever I do I hope is parallel to that heritage and, at it's greatest, adds to that heritage.
How do you manage the cultural duality of being a Nigerian living in the US?
I don't look at it as inherently contentious. The moment I accepted that contradictions will always be a part of the narrative of my life, that friction subsided. I must admit I struggled with this when I was younger. I consistently had this urge to prove myself to others in some way… [Now] I'm far more intrigued by multiplicities, intersections and inventions. What makes any culture beautiful, endearing and lasting is that it travels. And the land in which it originates travels with it. What we need now more than ever is land - to roam, to build upon, to grow, to experiment, to flourish. In essence: to be free.
Since graduating your celebrity status has soared. What keeps you grounded?
Working! I just try to push myself in a way that is best for the work and not simply to garner shock or attention. My method and interest has always been works that are challenging and demanding while subtle and fluid, so I'm incredibly grateful that I am able to continue exploring that.
What can we expect from you in 2014?
A lot more exhibitions, which is very exciting. I'll also be partaking is a residency at The Fountainhead. And I have been working on a new series of works that are a materialistic departure from my usual tool of choice - pen ink. These explorations are currently in charcoal and pastel. It's teaching me a great deal and pushing the boundaries I have limited myself to in the past.
The Constant Wrestler is at IndyMoCA until January 25th, 2014.
Six Draughtsmen is at MoCADA, Brooklyn until January 19th, 2014.
Toyin Odutola’s Thought-Provoking New Drawing Series
by Nastia Voynovskaya
1 January 2014
Though visually-pleasing and illustrative at a first glance, Toyin Odutola’s drawings are constructed on a foundation of hard-hitting critical theory about how we view race. The Nigerian-born, American artist’s works are rich with ink. Odutola focuses on her subjects’ skin, outlining ridges and contours with ribbon-like sections that make the work appear almost sculptural despite its flatness. Odutola’s focus on the skin is not accidental — she has stated that she wants to trace the skin, like a cartographer, in order to map out the idiosyncrasies of each individual subject. In doing so, Odutola meditates on the idea of “blackness” and how black people are portrayed and perceived.
Since we covered Odutola in 2012, she has created several new series. “Gauging Tone,” which features subjects drawn with a metallic sharpie on black board, focuses on issues concerning the ways black people perceive one another. The black and gold series “Of Another Kind” nods to the excessive, ornate aesthetic trends of the Renaissance. But Odutola lifts her subjects from a context of servitude ubiquitous in European art history (think, Manet’s "Olympia"), removing them from a specific cultural setting and opening up possibilities for their individual identities. Odutola currently has a solo show on view at the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art, on view through January 25.
Interview: Toyin Odutola
by Justin Allen
18 December 2013
“People are so quick, especially now in the age of the selfie, to put up a pose and assert this idea of what they think they should be,” artist Toyin Odutola tells me of photographing her subjects. “I hold the camera until they let go. That’s when I capture that moment in their default position, when they’re relaxed.”
Moving to Alabama from Ife, Nigeria at a young age, commentary stateside on Odutola’s skin color, from both people of other races as well as black peers, revealed to her the concept of race as an invention—one she, through her work, attempts to challenge.
Now 28 years-old and represented by Jack Shainman Gallery in New York City, the artist’s ink-layered depictions of her subjects—black and sinewy, familiar and foreign—has garnered her praise both in the art world and through social media where she documents her process. Concerned with identity and reinvention, through her work she wrestles with preconceived notions of race and gender, asking us, the viewer, to reconsider our perceptions of others and imagine something different.
Justin Allen: You’ve described your work as seeking to communicate both individual experience and universal commonality. These two concepts are seemingly contradictory. Do you think you reconcile the two?
Toyin Odutola: I feel like my work marinates in contradiction. I used to have a lot of issues with this, but I’ve found it’s almost impossible to avoid when depicting human subjects. But specificity is definitely important for my process of storytelling, though I don’t think the audience needs to know too much. Now more than ever I notice people create their own stories and incorporate their own specificities into the work, which I find interesting. There are some pieces I do where I’m very stringent about the subject, but generally I tend to let the piece just exist. It’s a bit hands-offish, but I don’t want to limit what the work can do.
JA: You’ve also spoken on obscuring the race of your subjects to unearth universal commonalities. In depicting celebrities, such as Solange and Redd Foxx as Fred Sanford, how do you achieve this with subjects most viewers immediately recognize?
TO: These portraits are based in the theme of narrative. I’ll talk about the Fred Sanford piece that I’m working on now. I remember finding this portrait online of Redd Foxx in character, and I loved his expression. It was so honest—the total embodiment of a side-eye. I immediately thought about how he looked like a philosopher. He looked how I thought Plato would look.
I’m working on this series called “Of Another Kind” which explores this black and gold look of Moorish portraiture prominent in European Renaissance art. I’m taking these black portraits out of the context of servitude and ornamentation and embellishment and exoticization and giving them this sort of otherworldly quality to invent a different narrative. Often times as a Black artist I feel a responsibility to be honest in some way, but I find that my portraying Fred Sanford as Plato is as honest as you can get.
JA: I discovered this Fred Sanford piece through your Instagram, and you’re well known for utilizing social media to document your process. How has social media been useful? Do you think it affects how people perceive your work?
TO: I used to follow comic book illustrators who’d post their processes of sketching, adding color, what have you, on their blogs. They were sharing and partaking in a collective education, and I learned a lot from that. So I decided when I wanted to get a blog started in 2009, to do that myself and to learn from my process. I think the problem arises when people see my openness as an invitation to art direct. Some people tell me, “I don’t think you should do that.” But a lot of people also encourage me and tell me they’re inspired and learning, and that’s cool. I fear sounding a bit narcissistic, but my use of social media has nothing to do with the audience. Sometimes I’ll make a comment or ask for the viewer’s opinion as a fun way of incorporating people, but I don’t go on Instagram to see what people are going to think. I use social media as a way to capture moments to remember later. I’m starting to feel a little weary of using social media. I love the openness of the forum and the dialog with people, but it can get tiring.
JA: You’re best known for your portraiture, but you also depict bodies. How do you communicate the reoccurring themes in your work differently when depicting a face versus a body?
TO: The thing I think about when I’m working on a body is, “How do I get this body to be engaging without being objectifying?” That’s the key. Often times it’s very difficult when you’re working with black bodies as a subject. People quickly regress, especially with female bodies, but with male bodies, too. I’m working on some pieces right now of my brothers in nude poses, and they’re not meant to be a spectacle. I’m trying to get the viewer to look at people being people. The only way to do that is to work the skin so much that it’s no longer just a flat surface for someone to wash over with their ideas—they have to look and dig to find the person.
JA: In your piece “Hold It In Your Mouth A Little Longer” you depict a person wearing a coat of patterned fabric, and you have some other pieces in which the subjects are wearing accessories. What inspired your use of clothing?
TO: This was a very recent development. Up to this point I refused to draw clothes: the reason being, I wanted to decontextualize my subjects. But recently I rediscovered charcoal and so wanted to try something else. I was working on a large portrait called “Rather Than Look Back, She Chose To Look At You”, and I was sick of it because it was so big, taking up so much time, and I was almost to the point where I hated pen and ink. I needed a break, and wanted to try something else to let my hand move around. I decided to make portraits in charcoal and pastel and to do something completely new and completely fresh, so I began to work with clothing. I still don’t know how I feel about clothing my subjects. It gives people a different access point to the work, and it’s definitely opened up some doors creatively, but I’m still learning from it.
JA: You’ve described your layering technique as similar to scarification. In your piece “And you emerged, curved and new” you depict the post-op chest of a female-to-male (FTM) transman. How was it using your layering technique to depict a body with actual scars?
TO: I took a lot of courses in undergrad and graduate school that dealt with gender studies and queer studies and this idea of inventing oneself. I wanted to do something that dealt with transgender identities and bodies, and while researching online, I kept finding images of FTMs chest’s post-op. I would see scars from the cutting and flattening of the breast and moving up of the nipple. Because my work is about this layered, very carefully considered mark, I thought it was even more appropriate as a subject to explore.
The scars I wanted to render in a way that made them a part of this theme. I made them visible to show that the body has been recreated and rebirthed, and at the same time the scars still seem a part of the skin. If you look at the piece from a certain angle, you can’t tell that the scars are there.
JA: Another one of your more recent pieces, “You Are No Different”, is one of your few pieces I’ve seen to include text. Can you speak a little about this?
TO: “You Are No Different” I did in response to the Trayvon Martin trial. A lot of times when I hear dialog about the trial I notice how little people know how to talk about race. One reason many don’t know how to talk about race is because some white people feel accused by these conversations or feel as though people of color are seeking their guilt. But we’re usually not trying to tell them to feel guilty we’re trying to tell them that, despite their privilege, they are no different from us.
The piece I made from a generic photo I found online of a young white kid. I drew him in my style, which is already a political act because I drew him in black pen and marker, darkening him and bringing him down from that sort of platform he’s been placed on because of his lighter skin. Then I literally branded his face with the words “You Are No Different” to say, this is not an isolated issue. Racism is a disease we all suffer from and people are dying because of it.
JA: In a 2012 interview with Think Africa Press, you describe the strength of art as “[lying] in its capacity to evoke strong empathy.” How does your art seek to evoke empathy and where, if anywhere, do you imagine this empathy to lead a viewer of your work?
TO: I want people to think collectively. We have to stop looking at others as so drastically different from ourselves. I’m often asked what it was like living in Africa, as if it is some exotic place. When I tell people my family drove a Volvo and lived in a suburb, all of a sudden they’re not interested. They want to separate me, and it’s hard for them to accept the fact that they’re experience is very similar to my own. There are distinct experiences, without question; I don’t think we need to forget the differences, but I do think we need to stop distancing ourselves. We all feel. Pain and triumph are universal, and for work to evoke that, I think is key.
Toyin Odutola and the public struggle
Last week, 28-year-old artist Toyin Odutola was home for Thanksgiving, back in her childhood bedroom, where, as she recently posted on Instagram, "My past efforts haunt me. Ha!" Odutola isn't afraid to blog about her failures, successes, and everything in between; indeed, she says that her work is all about process. Now, 13 of her arresting pen-and-ink portraits, which caught the art world's attention after a sold-out show in Chelsea last spring, are the focus of Odutola's first solo museum exhibition, "The Constant Struggle," opening at the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art on December 6.
Born in Nigeria, raised in Alabama, and trained at the Bay Area's California College of the Arts, Odutola draws on references as diverse as her upbringing, from animated Japanese serials and African carvings to the sinews of anatomical diagrams. But the blank white backgrounds on which she'll place a disembodied arm or head, the subject's dark skin radiating with flashes of disco-colored strobe light, strip away any context, preventing viewers from creating narratives about who's pictured. Instead, with their open expressions, these figures look back at us, shifting power away from the audience by reflecting our own gaze, and calling into question ideas of identity and race.
At Art Basel Miami Beach this week, Jack Shainman Gallery presents Odutola's most ambitious work to date, a five-foot tall portrait from her latest series, while earlier pieces are currently on view in group shows at Brooklyn's Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) and the Jenkins Johnson Gallery in San Francisco. Effusive, gracious—and quick to slip on an accent (Southern or Nigerian, depending on the story)—Odutola spoke over the holiday weekend about what's ahead and knowing when to let go of the past.
JULIE BRAMOWITZ: You recently relocated to New York. What has that been like as an artist, and do you find it distracting to work in a city with so much stimulation?
TOYIN ODUTOLA: It's been six months, and I'm not going to lie: It is hard to produce work in New York. You kind of have to center yourself—do some Zen meditation exercises and just focus. [laughs] It is very distracting, and money, of course, is an issue. I don't think I would have been able to make the work that I made for the show in May if it wasn't for me being in Alabama and away from New York, because it does have this way of influencing how you feel about your work. You hear outside voices and it permeates all that you do. But so much has happened for me in the studio here and I know that direct contact with inspiration wouldn't have happened if I didn't have access to what you have in New York, such as galleries, museums, lectures—what I could only access through the Internet in Alabama. I remember just recently going to the Edward Hopper show at the Whitney. Of course you read about his work in books, but to actually be in a room where you can study his hand, his mark, it changes your entire education.
BRAMOWITZ: You've mentioned Hank Willis Thomas as a mentor. Could you talk a bit about his influence on you as an emerging artist?
ODUTOLA:Oh, yeah. Hank says that I mention him too much, and I need to quit because people are starting to feel a certain way. So there's this joke between us that the next interview I do, I say, "I don't know who Hank Willis Thomas is. I met him one time and it was really awkward." [laughs] Hank's great. He's the one who "discovered" my work and saw something that I didn't see. He's still constantly pushing me to try out new ideas and not be afraid of what other people will say. He truly is a mentor, and I often ask him about the art world, how to juggle it all and not lose your mind. It would be like accepting an award without thanking him because he really has been so supportive.
BRAMOWITZ: Since joining Jack Shainman Gallery, are there other artists whom you've had an opportunity to meet and whose work has informed what you're doing?
ODUTOLA: Jack's gallery is great, because there's a lot of people whose work I admire and I didn't even know were represented by him until I got there and was like, "Oh, shit!" I've had the chance to meet people that I think are icons, like Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Kerry James Marshall. Kerry James Marshall especially was a huge influence on me in graduate school, as were Wangechi Mutu and Julie Mehretu. These artists are titans. My education was also very much in comic books, so I've been going to comic book events in New York and have met a few artists there.
BRAMOWITZ: Anyone in particular?
ODUTOLA: Cathy G. Johnson, who does a lot of web comics. I love her style. It's very different from mine, so I don't know if people will see the connection, but I've definitely played with some things just looking at her work. Anthony Cudahy. Mostly indie artists that I've been following for a few years online. I'm really interested in independent publishers and memes and mini comics. But even before that, I was interested in Japanese manga and anime.
BRAMOWITZ: When you're creating a series, do you conceive of it like a graphic novel, in which there's a narrative and images are ordered as a sequence of events?
ODUTOLA: I think about composition and narrative a lot. Each piece, in a way, is a panel. It's easier to tackle it when you think about the silhouette in that contained space. The graphic style itself is influenced by a lot of very layered and detailed comics that I read as a kid, like Vagabond by Takehiko Inoue. Sometimes I'll do sequences or multi-panels where there's movement, kind of like a movie.
BRAMOWITZ: What's the story behind your latest series, "Of Another Kind"?
ODUTOLA: It came from a postcard that I bought at some museum store. It was a sculpture of a young boy in gilded bronze. His skin was black, and his hair was this shocking blond. His hands were above his head holding out a cigarette tray, and he was standing on top of this leafy gold setting. It was very strange and I didn't understand why I liked it. I hated the servitude aspect, that it was just for someone to put down their cigarette. But, as an aesthetic, I loved the black-and-gold combination repeated throughout. So I started researching references. The more examples I would find, the more I had to type in "Moorish sculpture" or "Moorish portraiture," the mode for portraying "Moors"—basically, blacks—in Medieval and Renaissance Europe. I liked the aesthetic but I didn't want to fetishize or perverse it, so that became a vehicle for me to explore it but without the subjects being exoticized or serving a purpose, like an ashtray. The title, "Of Another Kind," is about looking at this genre from another perspective. The series also changed how I consider restriction when it comes to palette.
BRAMOWITZ: For the golden sections, what are you using?
ODUTOLA: It's a Sharpie, girl! It's a gold Sharpie from Office Depot. The whole piece is first done in pen and ink to engrave the surface of the paper, and then once that dries, the areas that I want to be gold I go over with a marker. That gives it the texture underneath, but also the sheen of gold on top. It's important for me to emphasize texture, to get that sculptural feel, which is what influenced the entire series because I was largely looking at sculpture and reliefs.
BRAMOWITZ: You were born in Ife, Nigeria, which is known for its carved sculpture tradition. Did that play a role in your earlier work where you focused on faces and expressions?
ODUTOLA: Ironically, I didn't know about the Ife sculptures until I came to America. It's so funny that I would be doing this work that's heavily drawn off of scarification, striated lines, that whole aesthetic. When I went back to Ife for the first time with my mom, we visited the museum there, and I was blown away. Up to that point, I thought that this style of mine was just this weird amalgamation of all these disparate references, and it made perfect sense once I saw those pieces. There are mirrors with my work, especially with the faces, the emphasis on the head, which, of course, is identity. You rarely see the whole body, and it's usually dwarfed by the face. But it was absolutely something that I came to later. My mom always says, "It's like you're coming home."
BRAMOWITZ: I read in a previous interview that you've been wary of depicting women. What pushed you away from portraying female subjects and towards males?
ODUTOLA: For a while, I was nervous about portraying women because of the objectification that automatically comes with it, whether the artist intends or not. With "Of Another Kind," I've not so much drawn nudes—I hate saying "nudes" because it's not a spectacle—but portrayed people naked. I see them in a more straightforward way—exposed, but with no indication of who or what they are; they're just there. That's a very powerful statement because when they're stripped bare of everything, there's no marker for people to label them or place them in a box. I wanted to twist that, so I use my brothers a lot, portraying them naked, open, exposed. That's something you don't see a lot, especially with black males, unless it's referencing slavery or pain.
BRAMOWITZ: The focal point of this series is a departure for you: Rather Than Look Back, She Chose To Look at You, a five-foot female portrait that will be on view in Miami this week. You worked on this piece over three years?
ODUTOLA: I started it and was like, "Mom, I don't think I can finish this piece," and she was like, "No, you're not ready." [laughs] So it was just stored away, and every once in a while I would bring it out and work a little bit on it, and then I'd put it away again. Then I decided to move to New York and was like, "I'm not going to finish this. It's been in the basement and every time I come and work on it a little bit, it's just more depressing to me." But my mom kept saying, "Take it with you." So I took it back with me, put it up, and said, "You know what? If there's one thing I'm going to finish this year, it'll be this piece." I was sick of having it be incomplete and I just went H.A.M. on it. I spent a good four to five months working on it, along with other projects. Once I finished, the piece was really about me dealing with a past that I felt haunted by, about Ife, as well as about coming to terms with failure. Suddenly you find yourself in the present with a finished piece and going, "I'm done. I can't keep feeling a certain way about the past." That's what the title is about.
BRAMOWITZ: When you post works in progress on Tumblr and Instagram, is it essential to your process to document these phases online and gauge the reactions of fans?
ODUTOLA: I originally started blogging because I didn't know if I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to talk to other people online who were doing art, so I would post work and ask for feedback. I loved that an artist like James Sheehan would show his process on his blog. It became this open dialogue that, unfortunately, we don't have a lot in the fine-art world. People will say, "Wow, you share a lot." I'm like, "No, I make it a point to." Instagram is a great place for people to share failure. I don't want people to think that being an artist is some glamorous life. Not everybody is Jeff Koons. Not everybody wants to be Jeff Koons, you know? You go through a lot of battles in your studio. I'll say, "I'm having a certain feeling about this piece and it's not a good one." [laughs] People respond to that in a very positive way. There are moments when they tend to get a little too fresh or try to art direct. But I'm just lucky to have someone see the work and be a part of the process in real time.
BRAMOWITZ: You've got several group shows lined up this coming year. What else can we expect in 2014?
ODUTOLA: I recently started working in charcoal and pastel. I hadn't touched them since I was in high school or early college, but I had been working in pen and ink for so long that I was like, "Okay, I need to break free of this." So I just picked up a charcoal pencil that I had around the studio and started drawing this piece, The Paradox of Education. I don't know where it will go but I would say 2014 is going to be a year of different materials. The pen and ink was my hand's education; now my hand is applying that same style with new tools.
RATHER THAN LOOK BACK, SHE CHOSE TO LOOK AT YOU WILL BE ON VIEW AT THE JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY AT ART BASEL MIAMI BEACH FROM THIS THURSDAY THROUGH SUNDAY, DECEMBER 5 THROUGH 8. "THE CONSTANT STRUGGLE: TOYIN ODUTOLA" OPENS AT THE INDIANA MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART THIS FRIDAY, DECEMBER 6. "SEVEN SISTERS" IS ON VIEW AT THE JENKINS JOHNSON GALLERY IN SAN FRANCISCO THROUGH DECEMBER 21. "SIX DRAUGHTSMEN" IS ON VIEW AT MOCADA THROUGH JANUARY 19.
For more of Interview's coverage of Art Basel Miami Beach 2013, please click here.
Toyin Odutola: Artistic Penmanship
by Jaya / Cat Witherspoon
Visionary Artistry Online Magazine
24 November 2013
Pablo Picasso once proposed the question, “Who sees the human face correctly: the photographer, the mirror, or the painter?” One look at a face painted by the gifted hands of Toyin Odutola and it becomes evident the answer to this question is the painter. The painter is the only one who sees the human face in its truest form. Toyin Odutola, is an artist who specializes in self-portraits fashioned primarily, if not entirely, with a black ink pen. She has single-handedly mastered the art of portraiture and human characteristics of individuals with African features—similar to her own—with this basic writing utensil. The faces and characters she creates have been featured in exhibits around the United States. Toyin Odutola’s notoriety has become so popular that it has reached the prestigious publication Forbes which featured her in its ’30 Under 30′ List, Art & Style Category in 2012. The sensation around Toyin Odutola’s artistic ability is like a work of art itself and one that most artists typically receive posthumously; however, for this young, talented artist, her face and the faces she paints, will give reason to respect the power in the pen.
She hails from Ife, Nigeria, by way of Alabama. Graduating from the University of Alabama located in Huntsville in 2008, Toyin Odutola credits the internet for her success as an artist. “I started my Tumblr blog around 2009, when I wasn’t sure if I still wanted to pursue art making. It became a space for me to explore artistic methods, theory and materials. By the end of 2009 I was convinced I wanted to be an artist. It inspired me to apply for graduate school. One could say I should thank the Internet for helping me get on the track I’m on today,” she explained to blogger Marc Mayer of the Asian Art Museum blog.
In 2012, she graduated with an MFA from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco and has toured the world with her exhibits every since. Now in New York, living and working, Toyin Odutola’s use of the pen shows a talent far beyond her extremely resourceful body of work, but it’s her inventiveness to take a writing tool and create “porous detail that navigates profound and personal issues of identity through the human physique,” as described by Tamara Warren writer for the online fashion magazine Life and Times, that has given her work such an impressive following.
“I am drawn to pen ink for its duality, how blacks and whites are captured by the ink, how the pen is both a writing tool and an art material. It’s accessible and ubiquitous. The more layered the ink, especially if you cake it on, the more you can see the heavy dark and great light qualities of its materiality,” the artist explains. In her latest painting, “You Are No Different,” featured in a group exhibition at the Jenkins Johnson Gallery in San Francisco shows exactly how powerful and artistic her penmanship is. “Where some may see flat, static narratives, I see a spectrum of tonal gradations and realities. What I am creating is literally black portraiture with ballpoint pen ink. I’m looking for that in-between state in an individual where the overarching definition is lost,” as described by Toyin Odutola in her mission statement.
Created with ink and a marker on paper, this painting along with the many others that she’s sketched presents her craftiness with an absolute talent. One glance at her work and its textural design almost animates the foundation on which it lies upon. The eye is no longer fixated on a painting but looking into the face of a human, so well constructed, that one is easily lost in its likeliness.
Toyin Odutola has a gift. She has a natural talent that is manifested with the help of a blank canvas, a pen and on occasion, other means. “Pencils, pens, markers—these are my main tools. Sometimes I use acrylic ink and watercolors, but it all boils down to what helps the process of drawing move along smoothly and allows the ideas to flow.” Her ideas are generally her imaginary capability to duplicate the physical and psychological attributes of the human body with a style like no other. She is definitely an artist whose work should be the centerpiece displayed for the world to see. In the words of Pablo Picasso, “Give me a museum and I’ll fill it.” My version of that would be—give me a home and I’ll fill it with portraits by Toyin Odutola.
On Collaboration: Solange Knowles x Toyin Odutola
The New York Pair Share Their Mutual Appreciation in the Last of Our Series with EDITION Hotels.
"I think the essence of collaboration is being able to lay yourself on the line,” says singer and songwriteOn Collaboration: Solange Knowles x Toyin Odutolar Solange Knowles, discussing visual artist Toyin Odutola’s powerful pen-and-marker works that explore identity in the fifth and final part of NOWNESS’ series created in conjunction with EDITION Hotels. “The best collaborations are not knowing what to expect; being completely open-minded and having a sense of vulnerability.” In this episode entitled “Inspiration,” the pair unpack their shared appreciation for one another: Knowles' first correspondence with Odutola was after she looked to track down the artist’s intricate, embossed pieces after a sold-out exhibition at New York’s Jack Shainman Gallery; she went on to commission an artwork which brought the two creatives closer. “I thought how can I address this in a way that's poignant and feel like I can really connect with you?” says Odutola. “So I did this series of myself looking down in this exhausted state, then looking up like I’m going to tackle you, and then down again.” The pair have a mutual muse in Africa, as reflected in Knowles’ most recent EP release, True—co-written with Dev Hynes—which gave rise to the Cape Town-filmed video to “Losing You,” and My Country Has No Name, the third solo show from Odutula, who was born in Nigeria and grew up in Alabama. “It was months and months of creating, so it was really nice to have Solange’s voice in my head as I'm working,” explains Odutola of listening to her friend’s music. “Your message is something that really connected with me; I see myself in your work."
Artist Toyin Odutola’s New Rendition
by Marc Mayer
Asian Art Museum Blog
30 August 2013
Toyin Odutola and I were planning her project for the museum’s Artists Drawing Club since last October, but we did not meet in person until the day before her event last week. Toyin graduated from the MFA program at California College of the Arts in May 2012 and moved to New York City this spring. All of our planning for this program took place over the phone, which might have been difficult if not for Toyin’s use of social media to document her art practice, an extremely helpful way to convey and understand her process. It almost felt like I was in her studio. This sensation of close connection through social media might seem like a novel and trendy idea, especially considering that she was featured in an ARTnews article, "What I Like About You: Artists to Follow on Instagram.” That type of documentation can provide practical, important information as well as reach a broad audience for her work.
During our initial talks, Toyin was really excited about a recent shift in the colors she uses in her drawings. Her new works featured a more subdued and restrained palette. We talked about how this change might be a great wayto view the museum’s collection through the formal lens of color. Ideas continued to develop after each talk and culminated in her project Rendition. While other projects in the Artists Drawing Club emphasized deliberate, face-to-face interaction between audience and artist, this project derived inspiration from Toyin’s social media practice to facilitate exchange. Using the hashtag #colormatch on Instagram and Twitter, she followed the stream of participant photos that were posted from the galleries when visitors matched the color of artworks to the swatches provided by Toyin. When she saw something of particular interest she included an element or motif from the object into the portrait she drew onsite. Along the way she shared progress online.
I interviewed Toyin right before her event.
Marc Mayer (MM): I learned that you use ballpoint pens in your drawings when I started to follow you on Instagram. You were on a flight and took pictures of a portrait in progress, which I loved seeing. Making work on an airplane made me very curious about the materials you use. What materials are you drawn to and why?
Toyin Odutola (TO): I am really drawn to ballpoint pens. The ballpoint pen is primarily seen as a writing tool, but the use of the ballpoint pen as an art material has existed since the 1950s, possibly earlier. I am drawn to pen ink for its duality, how blacks and whites are captured by the ink, how the pen is both a writing tool and an art material. It’s accessible and ubiquitous. The more layered the ink, especially if you cake it on, the more you can see the heavy dark and great light qualities of its materiality. It renders the concept of a black/white binary almost null. The ink embodies both qualities because of the nature of the viscous fluid. The ink also creates a sense of subtlety and immediacy, perfect for drawing. I’ve always been prone to drawing more than any other mode of creating. I sometimes paint, but it’s only been to support my drawing. I am attracted to materials that facilitate drawing and make its sense of immediacy. Pencils, pens, markers—these are my main tools. Sometimes I use acrylic ink and watercolors, but it all boils down to what helps the process of drawing move along smoothly and allows the ideas to flow.
MM: I am very interested in your presence on social media. How would you describe your use/practice of social media? How does it support and influence the way you work?
TO: The first introduction of my work to an audience came from interactions on social media. Concurrently, it was through the Internet and social media that I was first exposed to contemporary art and, in some way, the art world at large. I was inspired and heavily influenced by a number of burgeoning illustrators and comic-book artists who openly shared their work process. It was prior to the advent of official online tools like Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram, and it involved artists of all manner of mediums, varying fields and experience, taking process shots of their works and writing about their methodology in a very open way. Needless to say, it was a major part of my art education at the time. Through these various artists’ process blogs, I learned about materials, lighting, color—you name it, all from and the dialogues these posts generated.
I started my Tumblr blog around 2009, when I wasn’t sure if I still wanted to pursue art making. It became a space for me to explore artistic methods, theory and materials. I also used my blog as a catalog of how I felt while working. Initially, the blog was only viewed by me. I hardly had any followers and, honestly, that wasn’t my aim in the beginning. Soon, other artists, writers and designers began commenting on my posts. They would ask questions about what I was making, why I was making such work, and why I was using these materials –all questions I hadn’t really asked myself. The best interactions were getting recommendations to look at other artists I had not known, and artistic movements I had not yet studied. From that dialogue my work began to progress, and my independent art education blossomed. By the end of 2009 I was convinced I wanted to be an artist. It inspired me to apply for graduate school.
One could say I should thank the Internet for helping me get on the track I’m on today.
Today there are many more people viewing my work on social media. The response has really blown me away and often I am confronted with questions about why I share so much about my studio work online. In my mind, it is no different from the illustrator and comic-book artist blogs that inspired me. Maybe the difference is the art world, and that artists aren’t always comfortable or encouraged to share so much of their process, which is a shame. Maybe there is a flipside of sharing too much, where people give you direction on work instead of talking about ideas, which can be disconcerting. I am more interested in a constructive critique, friendly suggestions and, in some rare cases, collaboration.
Social media is a tool to connect to a different audience. I’m thinking of that kid, like myself not too long ago, who doesn’t have access to galleries or museums or studios; giving her/him a chance to see the day-to-day drudge of it all. To show people that, in the end, it’s all about the work. It’s not all glamorous, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important, meaningful and educational.
MM: I am curious if you think of your work as portraiture? Do any elements in your work challenge traditional portraiture? Does the concept of portraiture have any interest for you?
TO: I don’t mind being labeled as a portraitist; however, like everything that goes on in my studio, I’m not beholden to the practice. I admire portraiture and it is the main platform I use to create my works, but to limit my work to just creating portraits isn’t the case either. I admit, I am drawn to many artists who took more ownership of the term, such as John Singer Sargent, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Hans Holbein the Younger. But there are other artists who have used the parameters of portraiture beyond its initial purpose, such as Charles White, Kerry James Marshall, Alex Katz and Chuck Close.
I use portrait for conceptual means. I like some of the restrictions of portraiture. It’s a very basic premise. You are capturing the essence of a person at a certain time and place, but from there you can manipulate any of these elements and still constitute a portrait. I want to create spaces where things aren’t so concrete, spaces that aren’t so certain. The more you try to pin a feeling of a person down, it slips, no? I try my best to pin down that essence, which is crazy. How can you pin down something so abstract visually? You can try to capture it with color or various lines, but I know that part of a person is invention; part of what makes up an individual cannot be represented. That’s why I love portraiture.
We are living in a time when there is a plethora of ways and forms of portraiture. I like to carve out my own niche and create works that are distinctive, but also heavily entrenched in our contemporary moment. The fact that there are many ways of creating a portrait makes me more inclined to restrict the format: to decontenxualize the space surrounding a subject; to enhance the focus and emphasize a feature (skin, eyes, hair); to help the viewer to pay attention more intimately. I have been developing this focus of these portraits since 2009 and will continue to work on this a little longer. But what the future holds for me in portraiture is uncertain.
MM: You have mentioned that skin is really important in your work. What draws you to skin? Why do you find it so compelling?
TO: Skin is important because it is the singular feature where I can express the varying rhythms and lines that convey meaning or even poignancy. When it comes to how I draw skin, it may be the primary subject of the work, but what I hope is that skin becomes a gateway to how to read a person’s subjectivity. This has political implications related to the way people justify prejudice based on skin color. I want to invert this process and create a more positive and thoughtful outcome. I want to change people’s perception of skin, from seeing only the stereotype to seeing a fully formed, complex individual. Skin can be a vehicle to change ones perception, but that isn’t the end result of my work in and of itself.
MM: Do you listen to music while you work? What are three songs, artists or albums you are currently listening to?
TO: Yes, but it’s more of a tossup between music and movies. I love watching documentaries while working, which really means I love listening to them. Podcasts and audiobooks are great for my process. I get the visual experience through my drawing, so the experience of listening to great conversations and stories is ideal. Sometimes certain excerpts or random texts find their way into the titles of the drawings.
Right now, I’m obsessed with the band Inc., particularly their song “5 Days,” which has been on repeat in my studio. Also, two SOHN’s songs: “The Wheel” and “Bloodflows.” As for a third, I guess that would be the Spinners’ “I’ll Be Around.” It’s one of my all-time favorites. Generally, I listen to just about anything that comes on shuffle from my computer. Lately, it’s been electronic music for some reason.
MM: You mentioned that Asian art has influenced you and your work. What is your interest in the Asian Art Museum and Asian culture?
TO: I’ve visited the Asian Art Museum while living in San Francisco, and I enjoyed the collection and its diversity and saw some very interesting exhibitions. I like that you always find something new or different whenever you visit. I also love that James Jean is a part of the collection. I am a HUGE fan of his work. As for Asian cultural and aesthetic influences, I have been fascinated with Japanese art history, especially printmaking, and, I’ll admit it, manga and anime culture have interested me since I was a kid. As an undergraduate in Alabama I obsessed over Chinese literati works and posters from the 1950s and ’60s.
The irony is, whenever I get asked about my influences for art, I have to say manga. I wasn’t one of those kids who knew at the age of five that I wanted to be an artist. I didn’t have that sort of precocious insight. I was like any other kid, just going through the motions. I didn’t even think of myself as an artist until I was about to graduate high school and start university. I read comics voraciously when I was young. I loved that the illustrative platform allowed and inspired a variety of ways to express narrative. The graphic nature of the work is what fascinated me most. Artists such as Takehiko Inoue, for instance, really influenced how I looked at art and what I enjoyed: sumptuous detail and pattern language; various ways of enhancing thick, rich blacks, and the infinite ways in which one could express a moment in a face or individual features, such as the eyes. I guess you could say that’s where it all started for me. Manga and anime continue to influence me.
MM: What is the project you are working on for the Artists Drawing Club?
TO: The project is Rendition, a collaboration between you and me. We’ve been discussing it for about a year now, and it came from this idea of incorporating the Asian Art Museum’s collection into a project. I was excited about creating a work that had some connection to the works on view. I had begun working with a more polychromatic palette only recently, and it was interesting to think about this change. I also work in a very controlled manner, so the possibility of creating a work in a site-specific way intrigued me.
I like the notion of having the color palette influence the potential of a work. Normally, when I set out to create a drawing, I lay out which colors I wish to enhance and explore. For Rendition, we looked at features in the museum’s collection and narrowed the colors down to five. From there the project takes a sort of interactive turn. We wanted to include the audience, and although the idea of drawing on site is different from my studio method, you suggested taking the experience a step further: having the audience go through the collection and find the colors in the works, all while I draw the portrait on site, cataloging the colors found via social media. Of course, I would like to finish the work in the time slot of the same day, so I will be working on the piece a little ahead of the scheduled event, but I will be keeping track of the logs while I am working.
What excited me the most (and sort of terrified me) was the idea of having this entire thing documented with a live video projection. This gives the audience a chance to see my method in person, in real time, something which I tend to do mainly through social media platforms, i.e. my blog and Instagram. It gives the audience a chance to see the evolution of a work, and it bridges the gap between the studio and exhibition. I look forward to it all. I just hope I don’t make too much of a mess of it. Right now, I am still planning which portrait to draw. I have a few sketches laid out. I suppose it won’t be revealed until the event takes place.
'Rendition' with Toyin Odutola
"To focus visitors' attention on objects from the Asian Art Museum's collection, artist Toyin Odutola provided everyone with swatches of different color combinations influencing her current work. Visitors used the color swatches and went on a hunt in the galleries, attempting to find artworks that were as close a match as possible. Once participants found a match, they took a photo of the object and posted it on Instagram or Twitter using #colormatch. Odutola kept her eyes on the hashtag all night, drawing a new portrait based on participant findings in the galleries."
About the Artist: Nigerian-born Toyin Odutola grew up mostly in Alabama, received her BA from the University of Alabama in Huntsville (2008) and MFA in painting and drawing at the California College of the Arts, San Francisco (2012). Featured in Forbes' 2012, "30 Under 30 List" in Art and Style and the Huffington Post's "Black Artists: 30 Contemporary Art Makers Under 40 You Should Know", Odutola is a gaining notoriety for her intricate and laborious portraits using ballpoint pen, markers, and ink. New York Times art critic, Holland Cotter describes the result, "The colors that begin each portrait show through at the end. Beaming through chinks in the dark weave they look like stars in a night sky or filtered rainbows."
About The Artists Drawing Club: From February through September in 2013, this series invited a local contemporary artist to use the museum as a project platform, drawing inspiration from the institution to direct a unique experience for the visitor each month. The Artists Drawing Club provides a new lens to see the museum, its collection and the world around us through the perspectives of nine contemporary artists.
— The Asian Art Museum.
MY COUNTRY HAS NO NAME
by fayemi shakur
IRAAA (The International Review of African American Art)
12 August 2013
It is the story that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is the escort, without it we are blind. --Chinua Achebe.
After 9/11, Nigerian-born artist Toyin Odutola noticed a shift starting in American society. Nationhood and patriotism suddenly took precedence over upholding the principles of a multi-cultural society. Odutola’s perception was that the American spirit, once symbolized as a melting pot, changed; in her eyes it became a lie. “I remember as a teenager feeling pressured to be a certain way, to be very American and I knew that didn’t make sense. I was like a lot of people—a combination of two very divergent cultures,” Odutola recalls.
Odutola was born in Ife, a town in southwestern Nigeria with a history of naturalistic bronze, stone and terracotta sculpture production dating back to antiquity. Her name, "Oluwatoyin" (shortened to "Toyin") means "praise God" or "God is worthy of praise" in Yoruba. “My Dad says that I severed God and I’m just 'praise.' It has been a long standing family joke since I was a little kid,” says the 28-year-old artist.
Her family moved to Huntsville, Alabama when she was nine years old. Although Huntsville is predominantly conservative, her family found space in multiple communities where they could thrive. Huntsville’s sizable Nigerian population provided a sense of community. There was also church and for Toyin, arts clubs and an eclectic group of friends. “Huntsville is very much an engineering and military town, not a town you come to for the arts, but being in Huntsville helped me. Being in a place where everyone was so logical and practical, something snapped. I realized I did not want to be that type of person and gravitated towards the arts and out-of-the-box ideas.”
While she was in middle school, Toyin, for the first time realized that she was black and “foreign” because she was told so to her face. “Before that, being black and African was just part of the cornucopia of what made me and I was treated based on my performance. But when I moved to Alabama, I realized my performance no longer mattered because my skin suddenly spoke for me. I realized it would impact how people treated and responded to me and that continued into my adulthood.”
Navigating the tween and teen realms is already challenging under the best circumstances but for Odutola, it was also an experience of being “flattened” into a preconceived notion of who she was presumed to be. “Nothing affects a person more than living in a space where you’re a minority,” she says.
“You want to talk about identity politics, go to a middle school lunchroom. Your identity is your only capital. I struggled with the idea of what I had to assimilate to, which group to join in, and what would make it acceptable for me to move through this new culture. These ideas of otherness and segmenting people seemed very important at that age. It starts really young with children. Then you come into some consciousness and realize ‘I’m more than this flattened portrayal of myself’.”
As an dark-skinned African woman, Odutola also has experienced intra-racial bias. Growing up, she was annoyed by black people’s color hang-ups and their “Yo Mama so dark jokes.” It seemed to her to be self-destructive. “It was like, you’re making fun of me but you’re really making fun of yourself. I didn’t internalize it, I always questioned it.”
Odutola studied at the University of Alabama, Huntsville (BA), and the California College of the Arts, San Francisco (MFA). Trying to acclimate herself to the majority and explain her life and culture to others was initially frustrating. She didn’t start feeling the power of identity struggles until college where she began learning about African American woman artists.
One of her instructors at the University of Alabama in Huntsville nominated and encouraged Odutola to enter Yale University’s Norfolk Summer School of Music & Art program. She was the only person from her school to get into the program. While at the California College of the Arts, Odutola met visiting artist Hank Willis Thomas who continues to be a strong and supportive mentor. Odutola cornered him after a lecture and invited him to a studio to review her work. At first he declined but he did come. Impressed by her work, he sent some images of it to Jack Shainman which led to her being represented by the gallery. She had her first show there in 2011 − Toyin Odutola: (MAPS).
My Country Has No Name, an exhibition of Odutola's latest work, was on view at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, from May 16 until June 29, 2013. Her drawings touch upon themes of triple (African, African American and general) consciousness and blurring identities. In exploring the skin of her subjects as a geographical terrain, she traces connotations of blackness. Like the ancient Ife sculptors, Odutola too creates intricate line work and focuses on the face, a traditional style she likes but wasn’t aware of until she began studying at the university level.
Odutola found that visitors to the My Country Has No Name show could relate to the expression of her personal experience with their own feelings of dislocation. “This idea, which people say they can relate to in the show, of floating, or feeling like you’re not really rooted anywhere. It’s something I suspect a lot of people feel, always trying to mark the ground with your presence to show that you have been somewhere. It’s a futile act. You have this feeling that nothing is quite permanent.”
Odutola hit on an existential fact that gave rise to whole schools of philosophy and psychology: how to square the seeming solidness of this self in this moment and place with the recognition that the only constant is change and that we all will die.
“My family has been here for a long time,” Odutola reflects. “I’ve spent more time in America than anywhere else. So in that regard, I shouldn’t feel like I’m in a purgatorial state. Ever since I was a kid, the feeling of being home was a very unsettled feeling. It felt much more exhausting when I was younger.”
As Odutola settles into to a new studio and apartment in New York City, and establishes a professional reputation, she likes being close to museums and a part of a thriving art community. She looks forward to seeing how her work will evolve in a fresh, new setting. She also looks back over her long experience of uprootedness and declares, “Now that I’m older it’s liberating.
She likes that she's not limited or beholden to any one thing. "I don’t completely commit to any one identity and that’s okay. I’m aware of how an identity is invented. I remember my parents, like a lot of immigrant families, would invent or create a culture here in America that’s almost like an exaggeration of their Nigerian-ness. It was strange to me because it felt like a hyperbole: hearing our parents speak in Yoruba very loudly and boisterously amongst themselves in ways they rarely spoke back home, seemed almost desperate since it was only emphasized in specific functions. I didn’t resent it, I was fascinated by it, but I also didn’t trust it. I felt like it was something they felt they needed to do to feel comforted and to establish something in a new land, a place that did not feel like their own. It wasn’t a bad thing. They needed that illusion. We all do. We try our best to make do with what we have to make our parents feel better, to make ourselves feel better, but it's never authentic enough.”
“Some kids made a lot of effort to learn the dances and their native tongue and others wanted to embrace their American-ness instead. I didn’t feel fully committed to either side. I felt very ambivalent. My mom would probably just say I was a smart mouth.”
“Growing up I would always be quick to tell my mom she was contradicting herself and she would say 'so what.' It’s like the Walt Whitman quote, “So what if I contradict myself. I contradict myself.” It’s fascinating to me when exposing a lie becomes a good thing.”
I AM NOT MY HAIR
In the series, All These Garlands Prove Nothing Odutola explores women’s relationship with their hair. “It really started by accident, I created a portrait of myself with long hair. But [Hurricane] Sandy happened and the work was damaged. The idea was stuck in my head for a long time. The image, it seemed to me was like another person. The concept of it stayed with me and I wanted to ‘talk’ to her,” she explains.
“I started going through Facebook archives and I found cornrows, afros, braids, bleached hair, twists, weaves. Through the drawings I was re-acquainting myself with those personas. I always thought of them that way, as different personas. Every time I finished, I looked at these portraits as different people. All of these personas were like projections. Someone said (upon seeing the completed series in the exhibition) 'oh, they’re all selfies.' But it’s really not about that. It’s about how they are all at odds with one another. It’s like what Romare Bearden once said: ‘They’re all at issue.’ That’s what self-portraits capture, how we’re always at issue with ourselves and our differing personas."
"All the politics of hair was very prevalent thoughout the series. It’s like looking at fourteen different people. People who came to the show told me later that they returned home and started going through old pictures of themselves, looking at their old personas. Some conceptions of the malleable self I respect, especially those concerning women's identities. It’s like a survival instinct. We’re changeable for a reason because we don’t want people to pin us down. I think we need to be slightly slippery in society because we can get too complacent in one position or in one stance. It can easily become something that we turn on. We try to freshen it and change things up. I suspect it helps us feel good but as a social tool, it’s effective because it shows the different qualities we can embody and that’s appealing to people. You see it everywhere now in our society's current marketplace, people tend to hyphenate their professions and, ultimately, what they are capable of being: Writer-director-natural hair-blogger-fashion designer, chemist, theoretician, psychologist.… Me? I just draw people. I’m ambivalent…. The one thing I really like within my work is contradiction.”
BLACKNESS AT GROUND ZERO
The series Come Closer: Black Surfaces, Black Grounds is described as a personal rejection of everything associated with Blackness, which Odutola admits is a very complicated work.
"Come Closer was me accepting black as a material, as an aesthetic meaning and a conversation. I used blackboard, black ballpoint pen ink and in some cases, black acrylic ink underneath, and as a process, I was looking up definitions of Blackness and black identity in literal terms. I was reading a lot of Franz Fanon, W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, alongside looking up artists such as Romare Bearden and Charles White, with very modern takes on blackness and thinking about it as I was drawing the portraits."
"It was shocking to me how the material aspect took precedence and what it does to overshadow the reality of black identity with its descriptors. 'Flatness,' 'negative space,' 'darkness,' 'mystery,' 'impenetrable,' 'evil,' 'the unknown,'... those were just a few of many words I found describing 'blackness.' I was exploring the Western, linguistic landscape about how blackness was viewed religiously, economically, and politically, on so many levels. And here I was in a basic, concrete way drawing blackness and it expanded my mind. I was reading these definitions, the counter definitions, and the counter stances of those definitions, seeing that I’m here in the 21st century creating new works and these words and the context still seep into it even when I’m trying to remove or distance or emancipate that definition from itself."
"I’m doing black on black on black, trying to make it as layered as possible in the deepness of the blackness to bring it out. I noticed the pen became this incredible tool. The black ballpoint [pen] ink on blackboard would become cooper tone and I was like 'wow, this isn’t even black at all!' The black board was like this balancing platform for the ink to become something else. I instantly recognized this notion, of how we think something is a certain way and in relaity it is something else. This goes for individuals as well. What we think we are, we are not, the things that we project aren’t inherently so. The aesthetic of it led me to push it further. It brought me to another question. 'What happens if you invert the image, like a negative of a photograph?' (Gauging Tone, 2013) "This, in turn, led to more inquiries: 'What if you invert the black image and blackness in general, as a tangiable, aesthetic thing, what happens?...'" <
"I did that for a couple of drawings and it felt like a release for me, if that makes sense. This became a new series. I really love the series Gauging Tone, which was the title of this follow-up series. It was a very personal journey for me to see what I could do with the black image in a very limited but somewhat inventive way and have it not be beholden to something else. The only thing black was the context that surrounded the subjects portrayed, literally the blackboard that they're drawn on. The images are not black. So the real question was 'when you invert the image does the meaning change?' The answer for me was sometimes 'yes' and sometimes 'no.' It’s terrible…. I went back and forth. It was fascinating to see. Conceptually, it pushed me to explore how aesthetics can be an interesting segue into another dialogue in not just blackness but also perfection and how we tag on certain meanings to things, to people, even to context.”
Black Men, Before You Put On That Sentence, You Are GOLDEN
Particularly among black men in America, Toyin says she noticed an invented attitude among them:
“I would have these conversations with my brothers and they’d be like, 'I am a sentence, that’s all I am and you need to respect that and acknowledge that.' They would be like: 'I already see it. I wake up in the morning, take off my du-rag and I’m good.' They’re totally fine with that. And that fascinated me."
"There’s a portrait in the show of my younger brother naked and he’s sort of pinned down with his knee close to his chest, looking off to the side at the viewer. I was careful to title the piece which is “You Are Enough-- As Is”. I think, so often, especially with my brother, men take on that sentence and push it up to the world. I think it’s exhausting for him, and for many other men, to have that sentence pushed up in front of them, the sentence comes first and then he comes afterwards. He would never admit that to himself or anyone else. The sentence is up there by necessity. It’s like an armor that he puts on and I wanted to shed that armor in the portrait and present him in a very vulnerable way and that’s something that you do not do to Black men. They hate seeing themselves vulnerable, the history of that image, leads to a very dark path for them which is understandable."
"I drew him with a metallic golden Sharpie and he’s literally golden. I told him, upon finishing the portrait: ‘Look at you in this vulnerable state. You’re golden. You are beautiful. You are enough. I respect you and your sentence, but before you put on that sentence, this person exists and that person is you. And it’s beautiful.’ I wanted him to know that.”
WE CONTAIN MULTITUDES, RE-IMAGINGING OUR STORY
“There are a lot of pieces like that in the series “Gauging Tone,” says Odutola.
“One of my favorite pieces is ‘The Story of the Hunt Glorifies No One.’ It’s an homage to Chinua Achebe, which goes into more specific things about colonization and the origins of blackness through the plans of colonization. The conceptual idea for the work, of the blackness, came from that history (colonization), because that’s when slavery was justified. The title of the piece is a play on a Chinua Achebe quote from an interview in the Paris Review, where he talked about why it’s so important for him to support the African post-colonial voice, the underdog. He cited a well-known proverb and said, 'Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. Once I realized that, I had to be a writer. I had to be that historian. It’s not one man’s job. It’s not one person’s job. But it is something we have to do, so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail—the bravery, even, of the lions.' Once I read that quote I thought, ‘of course Chinua, yes, we want to triumph over the hunter’s story that’s always been written.’ But me being the weird, ambivalent artist that I am, I think, the problem isn’t so much the hunter or the lion, the problem is the hunt itself. We need to get out of this conversation entirely about this hunt because it seems to cause us problems-not simply for both sides, but for all sides. That’s what the series Gauging Tone is all about…the story of the hunt glorifies no one. Even if I invert this image, it doesn’t change the situation. I’ve got to get out of the whole conversation to really get it.”
Ultimately, the belief in the endless possibilities of a full-fledged person is one that Toyin Odutola wholeheartedly embraces. “I’m interested in invention. I’m interested in how we create all of these things on a whim, like in All These Garlands, —like the Walt Whitman quote, 'I contain multitudes', that’s brave, it’s so powerful."
"When you see my drawings, they are containers, right? The subjects are containers of these multitudes- of marks and landscapes and colors. They’re not real, they are 2-D figures in a picture plane, but what really is going on is those multitudes aren’t grounded in reality at all. When your imagination is aware of that and you willingly take that on, of course you can portray anyone, anything. It’s incredibly freeing as an artist in that way because you don’t feel restricted by any social code, aesthetic rule or formal standard. You can push past that. I love when people describe the drawings as a galaxy or the universe. It’s an incredible observation. That’s exactly where I want to go with this work. That’s something black people have avoided up until very recently and where we need to go.”
To view more of Toyin Odutola’s work visit: www.toyinodutola.com
fayemi shakuris a writer and editor who lives in Newark, NJ. She also works at Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art. She has contributed to numerous publications including HYCIDE, a photography magazine dedicated to subculture and art.
Alumna Toyin Odutola: A Rising Star with Her Feet on the Ground
by ALLISON BYERS
California College of the Arts
18 July 2013
The work of 28-year-old Nigerian-born artist Toyin Odutola (MFA 2012) may literally be black portraiture with ballpoint pen ink, but speaking figuratively, her work speaks volumes. Addressing issues of identity, race, and nationhood, her art resonates strongly with her audiences. Since graduating from CCA, Odutola has had two solo shows at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, and was featured as one of Forbes magazine’s “30 Under 30” art and design stars. The talented and down-to-earth artist credits much of her success to friend and mentor, alumnus Hank Willis Thomas (MFA 2004), her dedicated professors, and fellow students.
Journey to CCA
Odutola moved to the United States when she was little, settling with her family in Alabama. After she earned her bachelor of arts from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, she followed in the footsteps of her idol, Willis Thomas, and made her way to CCA. “I admired, and still admire, his work immensely,” says Odutola. “I was intrigued by the interdisciplinary range of his studio work and wanted to be involved in a graduate program that could inspire and facilitate that.” “In my time at CCA, my work took on so much more weight. I was able to think more conceptually and critically analyze, to the minutest detail, what messages I wanted to express with the work I was making. Hank’s work really solidified my inclination to trust in the work I was making and what that would lead me to.”
From Idol to Mentor
While at CCA, Willis Thomas delivered a lecture to the Graduate Program in Fine Arts students. “If I had not been given the opportunity to study [within CCA's program] I never would have met him,” says Odutola, “and meeting him took me totally by surprise.” Following the lecture, Odutola approached Willis Thomas to review her work, but he declined. He did, however, pay a surprise visit to her studio the next day. Since then, Willis Thomas has become a huge supporter of Odutola and her work, even including her as one of his "Top Ten" in ArtForum in April 2012. “My aim has always been to keep pushing my work and stay true to my convictions,” explains Odutola, “and Hank has been an amazing mentor for me with this. “CCA also connected me to an incredible group of peer artists and teachers who continue to inspire me to this day. Having them in my life has also been immensely helpful and fulfilling. … Everyone I had the pleasure of spending time and exchanging ideas with left an indelible mark on me.”
Culture Shock: From Alabama to San Francisco
Even though Odutola lived in Berkeley during her early years, she admits it was still a bit of a culture shock returning to the Bay Area for graduate school. According to Odutola’s recollection: “It was a colorful experience coming to San Francisco and I was open to all it had to offer. Sometimes you just need to take the risk and not be afraid of where it all might lead.”
Heritage & Identity
For many artists, heritage and identity are always (at least) subconsciously present in their work, but for Odutola, it’s a guiding force. The artist’s most recent work, exhibited in My Country Has No Name at Jack Shainman Gallery (May 16 to June 29, 2013), directly addresses issues of heritage and identity. “Inquiries began on the subject of what I considered myself,” explains Odutola. She posted about the experience on her Tumblr blog: “An African American artist? A Nigerian artist? An African Woman artist? These questions followed with how I saw the subjects I portrayed: Why I portrayed them specifically? What that meant? And so forth. “In all honesty, I was a bit taken aback by these questions because I had never considered myself in the context of that conversation.” “In sum, to speak somewhat metaphorically,” the artist continues, “I see Nigeria and the heritage I have from the country as a written language that has been laid before me, and I am now taking that same language and writing another story. “The source material is always there, but the characters, the settings, even the sounds will be changed, because the dynamics of that ‘identity’ have changed. “There’s no need or inclination to validate an existence or be afraid of the ambivalence. It took me a long time to accept this progression, but in doing so, I feel that my work can travel further because of it.”
Process: “It’s the Evolution of the Thing”
Odutola started her blog early on as a way to connect to the art world. Since then, her blog and social media pages have become a living catalog to the process of her work. “I love documenting process because I can see where I have been,” she admits. “It’s a bit like making tracks in the snow. I love it because I can catalog everything and always go back and see where I started and what led me to the finish. "It’s somewhat overcautious -- attempting to meticulously document every step, every mark, every stage, but I really learn the most from it. “During my graduate studies this process only became more cemented and intricate to my studio practice. It seems the more I can track what I have done, the better I learn from my mistakes as well. I can figure out what works best and what doesn’t.”
A Rising Star Keeping Her Feet on the Ground
In regard to being featured as one of Forbes magazine’s “30 Under 30,” Odutola addresses her fast ascension in the art world: “I’m incredibly grateful. I seriously cannot believe my luck. . . . Honestly, whatever success I have is attributed to everyone who has helped me, and that’s no wise cracking either -- I truly mean that!”
Well, it's not just luck! Odutola is a shining example of what can happen if you are dedicated, stay true to yourself, and always keep your feet to the ground.
I am incredibly indebted to the following faculty for inspiring and challenging me, helping me to think in broader, more innovative ways: Allison Smith, Maria Porges, Tina Takemoto, Cheryl Dunye, Taravat Talepasand, Nance O’Banion, Ranu Mukherjee, Kim Anno, and Elizabeth Mangini.
I got to learn so much from the San Francisco Media Center staff (Rebekah Eisenberg, Nick Bruno, and Lauren Malecheck), and the San Francisco Library staff members, who were all awesome. And I gotta make a shout-out to Chrissie Bradley and David Morini in the Graduate Studies Office for giving me life many, many times.
The most inspiring and creative persons: Christine Pan, Bruna Massadas, Bean Gilsdorf, Sita Bhaumik, Maria “Guadalupe,” Ann Schnake, Senalka McDonald, Manyee “Twiggy” Lam, Nick Johnson Lee, Matthew Leal, Ben Vilmain, Heather Watson, Kate Nichols, Allie Takahashi, Jordan “Adair” Stephens, Christine Elfman, Nicole Markoff, Christine M. Peterson, Maya Pasternak, Gigi Otalvaro-Hormillosa, Katelyn Eichwald, Serena Cole, Max Esplin, Lexie Bouwsma, Victoria DeBlassie, “Clavo Rivas,” Zafir Aksit, Aidah Aliyah Rasheed, Carmen Lang, Kenny Kong, Daniel Dallabrida, Johanna Friedman, Rebekah Goldstein, James Coquia, William Emmert, Kate Bonner, Marissa Botelho, Alex Hernandez, Kate Nartker, Andrea Bacigalupo, Kim Engelen, Henry Witecki, Joshua Reinstein, Wes Fanelli, Benjamin Ilka, Lindsey Lyons, and Larissa Greer.
My Country Has No Name: Interview with Toyin Odutola
by Alexandra Giniger
15 July 2013
New York, Jul. 2013--Since receiving her MFA from California College of the Arts one year ago, Toyin Odutola has garnered much buzz as a young artist on the rise who maintains a fresh perspective on the flexible natures of race, identity, and nationality. Her process and progress are readily visible through her many social media outlets, which display her painstakingly prolific self-portraits.
But who is the woman behind the work? From where has she sprung? Born in Nigeria, Odutola currently lives and works in Alabama. So, when I learned that she would be in New York for the opening reception of her solo exhibition, My Country Has No Name, at Jack Shainman Gallery in May, I jumped at the opportunity for a conversation on art, literature, and the politics of transnational identities.
Alexandra Giniger: Toni Morrison happily accepts and encourages the label of “black woman writer” since, in her view, this is a vast and encompassing pool from which to draw creative inspiration. How do you feel when labeled as a Nigerian, or Nigerian-American artist, rather than simply a contemporary artist?
Toyin Odutola: I love that Toni Morrison quote about her being cast as a “black woman writer.” For her, the label was liberating, because from that standpoint anything was possible. I believe that as well. I think when something is viewed as concrete, even when people are describing or labeling you, you can choose where you want to go. I used to feel stifled by my being regarding as a “Nigerian-American Woman artist.” I thought it was a stamp that ruled me out of imagining anything more to explore.
Now, I don’t see it that way at all. The capabilities of imagination render all the walls put up nonexistent. What I choose to accept and what I choose to create are intertwined. So, to simply state I’m a contemporary artist is ill-advised, for it makes me look like I can’t work with what’s available to me, what I have access to, and what I can create from that material. Being called a contemporary artist can also be limiting, for it is devoid of any sort of meaning. I’m attracted to the contradictions inherent in the terms “Nigerian-American Woman artist”; it gives me much to think about and play with. But in the end I’m not limited to those terms and neither is anyone else in viewing my work.
AG: For the majority of his life, James Baldwin, whom you’ve cited as a personal source of inspiration, maintained a self-imposed exile from the country which birthed him, in order to avoid his seemingly predetermined fate of becoming “merely a Negro writer.” Baldwin proclaims, “I wanted to find in what way the specialness of my experience could be made to connect me with other people instead of dividing me from them.” Has your shift from a home in Nigeria to one in the American South informed the way in which your works are expressed, and in turn, affect your audience?
TO: What Baldwin was trying to get at, and Morrison too, was this idea of picturing someone marginalized or considered “other” as experience universal. When you can picture a young man of African descent as a voice of a larger demographic than the one he came from, then you have truly emancipated the writer and the audience. It’s a collective effort. This is something that many artists struggle with: a connection to another individual, regardless of where one comes from or where your affiliations lie.
One of the things I like to play with is the perception of what “Blackness” can do, what “Blackness” can be. My childhood in the American South was an education in the debilitating power of imposing foreignness. I had to deal with my foreignness at a very young age and it took me years to understand why it hurt me so much. I had to come to terms with the fact that I was adopting that foreignness because I believed that was my only capital and what I needed to succeed in this world. I realized, rather recently, that my identity is malleable and subject to manipulation. It was scary to come to grips with that, but once I did, I found there was a world of opportunity in exploring that.
AG: By claiming allegiance to an anonymous or intangible country, are you attempting to transcend categorization? Are you, in telling the story of the other, simultaneously liberating yourself from being confined to an “outsider” category?
TO: The reason for the title, My Country Has No Name, was in response to another interview question I had not too long ago, about the authenticity of my Nigerian-ness and whether I considered myself a Nigerian artist, even though I did not live in Nigeria. I found this question frustrating, for it meant that my not being geographically present in Nigeria meant the validity of my work was in question. In my mind, as it was when I was a little girl, Nigeria has traveled with me, it has evolved with me, just like China, India, Mexico, Brazil and various countries have evolved as the people born in these countries have migrated to other locales. The place of origin stays with you. You can choose how it defines you in your own individual way. But, when I picture Nigeria and where it exists in my life? It’s in my apartment. It flourishes in my parents’ living room. It’s present at Jack Shainman Gallery right now where my show is being exhibited. All of these places aren’t simply remnants, they are active contexts in which Nigeria flourishes. It’s in the conversations taken place there, the sharing that goes on in these spaces that creates Nigeria. It is not limited to a literally designated geography.
AG: I love the way in which your pen, ink, and marker converge to form purposefully visible layers of skin that seem in perpetual motion. The majority of works on view are straightforward portraits, which include your subjects’ facial features. I perceive in your subjects' deeply expressive eyes, for example, a brash confrontation and challenge of cultural complacency in the viewer. One work that struck me is The Constant Wrestle (2013). The isolation of body parts – with two hands in tender embrace – forces your audience to examine the complex, pulsating skin of your subjects. By removing any facial identifiers of race, which are already pushed into question through your use of multi-colored skin tone, we are drawn to the universal humanity of your subjects. Would you speak more about your decision to include this stand-alone work in the exhibition?
TO: The Constant Wrestle is one of my favorite works from the Gauging Tone series, next to The story of the hunt glorifies no one. (Homage to Chinua Achebe.) The piece was initially meant as a connector to my last solo exhibition (MAPS), which included a few cropped, ballpoint pen drawings emphasizing the hands. However, as I began working on this piece, I realized that it represented the heart of the show.
There are a few pieces that represent the conceptual purpose of My Country Has No Name clearly, like How much is a symbol worth? and You are enough--as is, but The Constant Wrestle truly captures my personal feelings about this concept and how ambivalent I feel about identity in art overall. It’s this idea in which identity takes precedence: the “American” or the “Nigerian,” the “masculine” or the “feminine,” the “black” versus the “white,” the “Citizen” or the “Immigrant”; when in truth, all these binaries only serve to limit the conversation I wish to have in the work. To expand upon this I had to include that piece as a sort of fork in the road, and from there see that anything can be included, not simply ultimatums.
AG: Most of your work takes the form of self-portraiture. As these works transition from your mind’s eye and your studio to the eye and possibly private collection of the viewer, do you feel as if you’re giving away a piece of yourself? Or is this less an experience of loss, and more a bold and direct declaration of your personal identity, meant to dissuade and dissolve external assumptions?
TO: It is weird to see your work up, especially when it used to be scattered around your studio in all manner of ways. To suddenly see each piece all spruced up and luminous in their frames, I feel like I have to reacquaint myself with them. I’m seeing them in a new light. It’s exciting to see them and also...strange. I guess they are like pieces of myself, but I never really view the self-portraits that way once they are finished. I see them as having their own lives, their own identities. I can’t control what they project once someone else comes to see them or collect them. It’s weird. Yeah, it’s weird. (chuckles) I just hope that people can appreciate them enough to understand that the time and labor spent is meant to create a multifaceted individual and that can inspire others to see the multitudes within themselves and others. It’s romantic, I know, but it’s what I always think about.
 James Baldwin, “The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American”, 1959.
Reflections of My Country Has No Name by Toyin Odutola
by Liz Glines
The G-Lines Newsletter
02 July 2013
This show was so powerful that it paralyzed my ability to articulate how I felt. I quickly jotted down a collection of adjectives and emotions, because I knew I wouldn’t feel this way about another art exhibit for a long time.
I was so overwhelmed by Odutola’s work, by what the human hand could do that, as an average person, I was left feeling incapable of everything. Now, every word I say seems forged. And every action I engage in seems feeble-minded. For I can no longer make a contribution to the world that doesn’t now seem trite compared to this incredible presentation.
In the “My Country Has No Name” exhibit, Odutola continued her practice of portraying human figures through mostly pen ink drawings on paper. I was mesmerized by the insane and meticulous detail in the work. At close focus, there were millions of fine ink strokes, which made up body contour, muscle strands, facial expression and light reflection of the human form. Other unexplained revelations in the work had found the missing emotional link between art and reality.
These characters were in movement—in mid-reaction to being watched, and I caught myself at times gazing intently, waiting for them to move. What were they thinking? What were they about to tell me? These answers were reflected in the skin that they bore—a skin that throbbed and sighed and breathed as I did.
Embarrassed by the belief in the life of these characters and overtaken by the energy emitted from them, I forced myself to stare at the ground for minutes at a time—time to digest the work and process this profound experience.
I walked outside to get some fresh air and absorb some light. Still overwhelmed by the work, I began to cry. Even though the exhibit was laden with black ink, my world had been introduced to a new hue, and I struggled to accept this. I walked down the street and this new color—new perspective—surrounded me, and I wondered if anyone else on the street could see it.
The “My Country Has No Name” exhibit has changed me and inspired me to set much higher standards when engaging my own creativity. This is perhaps the only art exhibit, where I feel I am now a better writer for having seen it.
My Country Has No Name by Toyin Odutola
by Kimberly Li
25 June 2013
"To classify “My Country Has No Name” as a series of cultural portraits is to ignore the degree of self-portraiture that makes the exhibition a soulful and thoughtful one. Nigerian-born artist Toyin Odutola uses pen, metallic marker, and lithographs to illustrate the faces of many individuals of color, and it is the unique accents of color that deliver a sense of depth that lies behind the façade of the superficial. Highlights of yellow, orange, and gray decorate the skin of the figures to mimic the look of musculature, which serves as yet another acknowledgement of what lies behind mere appearance. For one particular grouping of works titled “All These Garlands Prove Nothing,” Odutola takes the audience on a journey of her hairstyles in order to tease out the fact that these varied adornments stand secondary to the stoic message of her work. Odutola’s work is currently on exhibition at Jack Shainman Gallery in NYC until the end of this month."
Toyin Odutola Captures The Multitudes Within Our Skin
by Emily Colucci
5 June 2013
In his iconic Black Skin, White Masks, Franz Fanon explains, "I am black, not because of a curse, but because my skin has been able to capture all the cosmic effluvia. I am truly a drop of sun under the earth," which almost perfectly describes artist Toyin Odutola's exhibition My Country Has No Name at the Jack Shainman Gallery. Transforming the human body into a luminous, rich and colorful visual landscape, Odutola's gorgeous and thought-provoking show, open until June 29, presents Odutola's deft artistic investigation into blackness and identity through her intricate line work.
From metallic Sharpie on black board to pen and marker on white paper, Odutola consciously selects her materials for their vibrant sheen. In addition to their artistic function, Odutola also enjoys using everyday materials such as ballpoint pens to create her almost paint-like surfaces. As she explains, "I love that my materials are cheap. I love that they are primarily regarded as office supplies, not art supplies; that by my utilizing these tools in such a way expands their consideration, making them more than what they are generally known for doing, limited to by perception."
Born in Nigeria and currently living in Alabama, Odutola's background heavily influences her focus on identity in her art. As she describes, "I’ve always felt ambivalent about my heritage and prescribed identity. There is something suspicious about labels: they define you in very concrete terms and they can emancipate you all the while potentially limiting and trapping you in place. The finite nature of labels often feels demanding to me in some way, so I try not to let myself get too attached or beholden to them. This process of tug and pull is often documented in my work."
Looking at the work and the title of My Country Has No Name, Odutola reveals that she "attempts to highlight the contradictions of commitment and disillusionment towards identity: how one is susceptible to it, how one can manipulate it and how one can disregard it altogether.” Playing with her ability to artistically alter identity such as her complete color inversion in her series Gauging [Tone], Odutola creates stunning portraits, which tread the line between realism and imagination.
In the series All These Garlands Prove Nothing, Odutola presents herself in various hairstyles ranging from dreadlocks to a shaved head. Changing her own identity through her hair, Odutola observes, "Identity in presentation changes so dramatically and can be altered on a whim—according to contexts, embellishments, ideas, and so forth. Hair (and the lack of it) being the focus of the series became the true subject to capture."
Not only portraying the interaction between identity and presentation, Odutola also references the historical significance of hair to the African American community. Odutola describes, "Considering the long and contentious history regarding women of African descent in the United States and their personal, socio-economic and political relationships with their hair, All These Garlands Prove Nothing nods at that larger dialogue.”
Similarly, Odutola's radiant and unique treatment of black skin whether with metallic bronze Sharpie or multi-colored markers allows her to delve into the experience of having black skin. "When I began working this way, rendering the skin like this captured what I thought 'black skin' (in literal and visual terms) felt like," says Odutola, "The role of blackness in the work began as a personal investigation on the aforementioned 'feeling' of it, the material implications of it, and how these aspects could be showcased throughout the skin’s landscape. Since then, it has progressed to expand the possibilities of what the meaning of 'blackness' (and in turn, “black skin”) can entail.”
Odutola's rendering of skin as a colorful landscape allows her work to transcend just one singular identity, encompassing and inspiring viewers with a wide variety of identifications. Asked how she wants to affect viewers, Odutola responds, "I only hope the individuals who view each drawing get an idea that what one is seeing is the many multitudes contained within all individuals, and how much of that is invention (which cannot be designated as “good” or “bad,” 'right' or 'wrong.')”
Toyin Odutola, My Country Has No Name
Time Out: New York - Critic’s Pick
Wed. May 29 2013
"Time Out says: The artist, who was born in Nigeria and currently calls Alabama home, specializes in intricately rendered works on paper, featuring figures and self-portraits. Her highly unusual cross-hatching technique lends a shimmering kaleidoscopic effect, in which lines in pencil or pen and ink are laid down to resemble shining, differently colored strands of hair or sinew. The amount of detail involved is extraordinary, and the subjects, usually silhouetted against white, appear as if they were portals into a parallel universe or dimension of space."
A Look At Artist Toyin Odutola’s “My Country Has No Name” Exhibit
by Tamara Warren
Jay Z's Life+Times
29 May 2013
Toyin Odutola illustrates the enduring and perceptive power of the pen in My Country Has No Name, a new exhibition of her work on view at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York City. Odutola was born in Nigeria, raised in the south and is a recent graduate of California College of the Arts. She lives and works in Alabama.
The strength of Odutola’s work is in the porous detail that navigates profound and personal issues of identity through the human physique. In her new exhibition, she revisits the context of skin as a plane to a larger territory, a concept that drives much of her investigation. The result is a series of intricate drawings that evoke imagery akin to a rich tapestry and inform a larger conversation about immigration in relationship to the African diaspora.
While Odutola is sought after as a young emerging artist, her sensibilities suggest a patient, classical approach. She favors the age-old act of drawing over engaging in quicker, simpler technological means for her medium. Her work demonstrates her discipline and the intention of each line as it comes from her hand. She engages in the digital sphere to distribute her work on line via Tumblr, a juxtaposition between her careful process and her conversation with contemporaries. Odutola’s portraits have expanded from a more subdued palette to incorporate shimmery metallic Sharpie markers in the series Gauging Tone.
Odutola accesses her shared Nigerian origins in homage to the iconic author Chinua Achebe who died earlier this year. The story of the hunt glorifies no one: homage to Chinua Achebe is based on Achebe’s reference to a Nigerian proverb in a Paris Review interview about “the danger of not having your own stories.” Two male figures are shown outlined in golden detail; their features cast in a translusent pallor appear less defined against a black backdrop, as if they were fading away.
In the series of self-portraits All These Garlands Prove Nothing, Odutola sifts through her various hairstyles to examine their meaning on both a societal and cellular level. While the premise centers on the politics of hair, it is in the striking eyes that hold the viewer’s gaze. What each portrait contains is a nuanced quality that seems to capture a singular moment in time. In the work A Constant Wrestle, she uses marker on black board to focus on intertwined hands, cast in two distinct bronze shades. The series Come Closer: Black Surface. Black Grounds is composed of black ink on black board, intended to provoke thought about the nature blackness. Each of the works in My Country Has No Name has an intimate effect, but woven together in the larger context speak to a broader narrative about coming to terms with self through the age act of putting pen to paper. It’s a remarkable show that summons the universal sense of yearning.
Toyin Odutola - Art: Color that Defies the Lines
by Shayna Kulik
23 May 2013
It’s no secret that how we present ourselves reflects who we are and our identity; but what about the aspects of our physicality we can’t control – the color of our skin, for example – that also has an effect on how we see ourselves amidst society. Everyone carries the a judgmental weight, both individually and within cultural groups.
Toyin Odutola’s art in the exhibition, My Country Has No Name, explores this aspect of identity as a woman of color. Her self portraits present a range of her own hair styles, reflecting how this physical embellishment so easily effects perceptions of identity. Her portraiture utilizes black and copper inks to define her figures, exploring the meaning of blackness and how these connotations feed into social identities of how black people see one another. She describes the work as “a personal rejection of all the ideas I associated with blackness in myself.”
My Country Has No Name is an exploration of identity rooted in the friction created by hyphenated nationalities and a study of what comes from a reconciliation of divergent cultural homes to form new multilayered realities. Click here for more info. Jack Shainman Gallery: 513 West 20th Street, New York, NY 10011
Toyin Odutola: My Country Has No Name
by James Thorne
16 May 2013
The Nigerian-born, Alabama-based artist discusses process, identity and selfies.
A recent graduate of California College of the Arts, Toyin Odutola is already celebrating her second show at Jack Shainman Gallery in NYC. The energetic artist produces ink works on paper from her studio in Alabama, updating friends and fans through an active blog. At 27 years old, Odutola is unabashed of her millennial status, exclaiming of her self-portraits as she walks through the gallery, "There are a lot of selfies—let's just call it out!" But behind the humor, there is a seriousness. The exhibition, called "My Country Has No Name," takes on race, nationhood and identity through the fine tip of a ballpoint pen.
Nigerian-born Odutola's series of self-portraits takes the name "All These Garlands Prove Nothing," a reference to the artist's protean hair style. "The portraits go from me having this crazy afro to punk dreadlocks with a half-shaved head, long braids, this Grace Jones 'Eraserhead' look—but it's the idea of the artifice of a presentation and how malleable a persona is," she says. The artist also catalogues friends and family members; mostly young and mostly bored. "I like awkward or candid moments that just look off," Odutola continues. "Disillusioned and blah—it sort of represents our generation. We've seen so much and we're so bored."
Odutola seems to be fed up with the wall that traditionally hides process from final product. Her Tumblr is made up of candid shots of works in progress that are meant to explain her methodology. "I'll be honest—I started the blog because I grew up in the south where there was no access to any museums or galleries," she explains. "So my ticket to people was the internet. If I was going to get into this world that I had no idea how to navigate, I wanted it to be honest."
The surface effect—the result of layering pen on marker—gives Odutola's figures a distinctive shimmer and patchwork quality, and opinions differ on what to make of it. "People have a different response [to the effect] each time—I've heard muscle, hair, wires. Someone said it looks like a nightclub and there's a light show shining on the face." For the artist, the main visual component is the blocked-off quadrants that underly the surface-level work, a sort of puzzle that creates the planes of the face. In terms of color, Odutola has taken pains to represent a "multifaceted brown" that is applied to each subject, regardless of race.
Odutola's inclusion in Forbes' 30 Under 30 list for notable names in arts and style puts her in a league with artists like JR and Jacob Kassay. Despite her success, the artist remains humble. She thanks predecessors like Chuck Close, whose process-heavy portrait work was an influence early on, and apologizes for subjecting gallery-goers to so many pictures of her "mug."
"My Country Has No Name" runs at Jack Shainman Gallery through 29 June 2013.
Top 5 gallery shows on view through May and June 2013
by Alison Martin
14 May 2013
"Below is a list of notable exhibitions on view this month at galleries in Chelsea and Soho that are worth a visit."
"1. My Country Has No Name - Nigerian artist Toyin Odutola unveils several recent lithographs, pen and ink drawings on paper, metallic marker drawings, and ink on black board pieces, where she uses human form to explore ideas of culture and identity. At The Jack Shainman Gallery, 513 W. 20th St., through Jun. 29. The gallery is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m."
The Moment for Ink
by Sharon E. Bliss, Joseph Z. Chang, Abby Chen, Charles Egan, Britta Erickson, Mark Dean Johnson, Alicia Kolbus, Jianhua Shu, Mabel Teng, Leslie Wong and Jay Xu.
Exhibition Catalog, published by San Francisco State University with the Chinese Cultural Center of San Francisco, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, and the Silicon Valley Asian Art Center. (2013)
Essay - "Inkpossible: Kiki Smith, Nancy Chan, Toyin Odutola, Jonathan Tyler Skeleton Wallraven, Xie Xiaoze" by Abby Chen
Read excerpt of text here.
The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum opens exhibitions that explores ballpoint pen drawing since 1950
by RICHARD KLEIN
24 March 2013
RIDGEFIELD, CT. - Conceived at the end of the nineteenth century, perfected in the 1930s, and popularized after World War II, the ballpoint pen has become an indispensible part of everyday life. Widely condemned for transforming handwriting from the lofty craft of penmanship to an indifferent scrawl, the ballpoint as a tool has contributed to the rapid acceleration of life in the modern world, allowing the hand to move with careless speed and efficiency. Designed as a replacement for the fountain pen, which was essentially a quill pen with the addition of an ink reservoir, the ballpoint is really a tiny, precision machine that owes its existence to twentieth century technical advances in micro-manufacturing, metallurgy, and chemistry. Bic, the French manufacturer who helped to popularize the ballpoint, currently sells over 15 million of its iconic “Cristal” pens every day worldwide.
Art does not immediately come to mind when one considers the ballpoint. In fact, the general consensus that the pen contributed to a decline in the craft of handwriting suggests that any marks made with it are lifeless and boring. As late as 1970, calligrapher and handwriting historian Alfred Fairbank wrote, “Ballpens are not recommended for good writing.” 
The English novelist, critic, and journalist Philip Hensher says in his book on the downfall of handwriting, The Missing Ink, “I was deeply, inexplicably shocked the first time I saw one of Joseph Beuys’s drawings executed in blue ballpoint pen—the medium and the color clearly and unarguably limited to doodling in a meeting, not for something to be exhibited in a gallery.” Walter Koschatzky, esteemed art historian and director of the graphics collection of the Albertina Museum in Vienna, disparaged the character of the ballpoint pen in his 1977 book Die Kunst der Zeichnung: Technik, Geschichte, Meisterwerke (The Art of Drawing: Technology, History, Masterpieces), “Pressing the point of the pen down produces no change in the thickness of the line; consequently there is no differentiation of line in hair-thin and hatching … [therefore] its use in art is virtually nil. Drawings done with a ball-point pen always exhibit a deadness of line.”
The narrative of the ballpoint’s appropriation by artists starts with a convergence of technology and culture that is too propitious to be mere coincidence. The pen, as we recognize it today, was invented by Laszlo Biro, a Hungarian who in 1940 fled the Second World War to find refuge in Argentina. With the backing of financier Andor Goy, Biro perfected his design and the ballpoint went into limited production in Buenos Aires in 1941. 
The flood of refugees leaving Europe for Argentina in 1940 included the Argentinian-born artist and theorist Lucio Fontana, who had been living in Italy. Fontana’s influences included the Italian Futurists, who vehemently advocated for a new approach to art that embraced the machine age with a radical, technophile fervor. In Buenos Aires, Fontana began his conceptualization of a new art movement, coined Spatialism, which went beyond the anarchy of Futurism to unite art and science in a visionary manner that looked forward to the new “space age” that was being promised for the post-war world. Fontana was one of the first artists to work with neon and black light, as well as envisioning works utilizing television as a medium.
During the early 1940s, Biro’s ballpoint was heavily marketed in Argentina. Attention on the pen and its attributes was heightened by an order from the United States Air Force for twenty thousand pens, based on its ability to not leak at high altitudes. Ballpoints were promoted as the pen of the future, while fountain and cartridge pens were denigrated as old-fashioned and obsolete. Fontana took up drawing with the ballpoint in 1946, making sketches and preliminary drawings for works to be completed in other media.
His drawings from this period exhibit a continuity of line and a speed that was made possible by the pen’s nature, which offered a new kind of freedom to the kinesthetics of the human hand. It is interesting to note that the signature works for which Fontana become so well known a decade later—canvases with precise cuts “drawn” on their surfaces—were made with utility knives, another industrially-made, non-art tool that became popular in the post-war world.
In 1951 the Bic Cristal was introduced in both Europe and America, quickly becoming the most popular and inexpensive ballpoint available. Almost overnight the pen went from being a rather costly luxury item to a mass-marketed consumer commodity that was available anywhere and everywhere. This was the era of Abstract Expressionism, where the hand of the artist was considered a seismograph that directly and spontaneously transmitted the artist’s unconscious thoughts and feelings. A huge premium was put both on being painterly and on the timelessness of the artist’s mark. The ballpoint, being perceived as not only lacking authenticity but also being a product of mass culture, was regarded as rather soulless, and was not taken up with great enthusiasm by artists in the 1950s. 
One notable exception was Alberto Giacometti, an artist not connected with the trend towards abstraction. Giacometti started using the ballpoint for figure drawing in the early 1950s when the pen began its climb to ubiquity, and he completed numerous small works with the pen up to the time of his death in 1966. Many of these drawings were done on either pages or covers taken from books and periodicals, with the text referencing Giacometti’s literary interests. Looking at these drawings, one is tempted to say that his style had been waiting for the appearance of the ballpoint: the artist’s approach of defining the figure through a restless and quickly scribbled cloud of linear mark-making was a perfect match for the pen’s fluidity. These drawings, done on top of found texts, have the nonchalant character of gribouillage (doodling), portending the pen’s future use by artists such as Martin Kippenberger and Joanne Greenbaum.
In the 1960s, a significant number of artists used ballpoint as a drawing tool in varying degrees, including Cy Twomby, Dan Flavin, Barry Le Va, and Hanne Darboven. This use of the pen was connected to the idea-driven nature of much sixties art and its renunciation of conventional aesthetics, which included minimizing or eliminating the art object and an interest in both language and text. Darboven’s drawings, which resemble gridded, numerical ledger book entries, are mathematical tables based on a personal system derived from calendar dates. Conceptually rigorous, her graph-like ballpoint drawings made use of the anonymous nature of the ballpoint as an everyday notational tool. In all of these examples from the 1960s, the pen was relegated to a rather prosaic role, reflecting interest in non-traditional subject matter as well as rejection of optical beauty.
Fontana was a major influence on a group of Italian artists in the late 1960s that made up Arte Povera (“poor art”), a loosely organized movement that reflected the social, political, and cultural upheaval of the era. The artists connected to Arte Povera embraced unconventional materials—particularly found objects—to question prevailing hierarchies and aesthetics. Alighiero Boetti, who was affiliated with Arte Povera, made his first drawings exclusively with ballpoint in the early 1970s. Guided by a belief that artists should work with preexisting materials in order to connect with everyday life, Boetti embraced the ballpoint not only for its ubiquity, but also for its commonplace beauty. It is one thing to draw with a ballpoint in a manner that resembles handwriting, but another to fill up entire sheets of paper with oceanic fields of dense marks, and Boetti’s drawings with the pen are the first to dramatically revel in the unmistakable blue of ballpoint ink. Throughout the 1970s, Boetti completed numerous, large-scale ballpoint drawings, delegating the actual mark-making to teams of students in Rome. In multipart works, such as Ononimo, an anonymous individual completed each sheet, with the teams working on them equally divided between men and women. These laborious and monumental ballpoint drawings bring to life two of Boetti’s working principles: “Putting the world in the world” and “Giving time to time.”
The narrative of the ballpoint’s ascendency to acceptance continues in the late 1970s with the Belgian artist Jan Fabre. Fabre is the first artist to totally embrace the pen as a medium, completing hundreds of ballpoint works between 1977 and 1992, with drawings varying in scale from the intimate to the architectural. Fabre, who besides being a visual artist is also a theater artist and author, has a complex career based on a poetically romantic sensibility that has consistently explored the relationship between the physical and spiritual nature of the world. This interest in the tangible and the intangible led Fabre to create a body of work that focused on the metaphoric nature of the transitional period between night and day, what he refers to as “The Hour Blue,” that mysterious half-light world that mediates between the realm of reason and that of dreaming. In the ballpoint, Fabre found a perfect vehicle for expressing this dichotomy, taking “Bic blue” and transforming its humble materiality into a transcendent experience. In the work Tivoli (1990), Fabre completely covered an early nineteenth-century castle in Mechelen, Belgium, with blue ballpoint pen, dematerializing a massive stone building through an act of painstaking labor. The Tivoli project is represented in this exhibition by two photographs of the castle—one during the day, and one at night—with their surfaces completely inked over with blue ballpoint.
For individuals born after the beginning of the 1950s, the ballpoint has been like the ocean to fish; a reality that is ever present and practically invisible. You, the reader of this essay, have probably held a ballpoint in your hand at some point earlier today, perhaps using it to doodle on the margins of the agenda of that tiresome meeting or to sign the Visa receipt for your lunch. For many artists, this state of affairs has created a situation where the ballpoint has become the vernacular go-to tool that can be coaxed out of its supposedly limited nature to perform a seemingly unlimited range of aesthetic roles, becoming in many ways the pencil of our era. The past thirty years has seen the ballpoint taken up by an uncategorizable range of artists, with the results spanning the abject to the sublime.
This ubiquity of the pen, its always-in-arm’s-reach nature, was used to great effect by German artist Martin Kippenberger in his series of “hotel drawings” begun in 1987. The hotel drawings are done in a great variety of media, with ballpoint making a frequent appearance along with felt tip, transfer lettering, and more traditional materials such as watercolor and pen and ink. Created by the artist to bring order to a practice that was frequently nebulous, Kippenberger’s consistent use of hotel stationery as a drawing ground provided a through line in his work over the last ten years of his life. The series includes preliminary drawings for major works, as well as hundreds of stream-of-consciousness drawings that exhibit an offhand, surrealistic humor and frequent use of both visual and verbal puns. Hotel stationery suggests the spontaneity of doodling while on the phone, yet the majority of Kippenberger’s hotel drawings are carefully considered. The drawing Untitled (Hotel am Schlossgarten Stuttgart) that is in this exhibition includes a rendering of a Bic pen, presumably the tool that was used in its making.
In contrast to Kippenberger’s ad hoc and sporadic use of the ballpoint, Il Lee has developed a body of work over the past thirty years that has been entirely rendered with either blue or black ballpoint. Lee has defined a new role for the pen, that of a discipline, where he has taken the pen’s seemingly endless ability to make a continuous and fluid line to a masterful level that transcends the pen’s pedestrian associations. Lee’s large-scale ballpoint abstractions might bring to mind the fluid calligraphy of Jackson Pollock, but they owe as much of a debt to traditional Asian ink drawing, a medium that bridges the gap between calligraphy and representation in Asian culture. Lee, who was born in Korea, came to New York in the late 1970s, earning an MFA that culminated in a thesis on the Italian Futurists. Echoing Fontana’s early Futurist infatuation, Lee was attracted to the movement by its premium on speed and dynamism, both factors that are reflected in the his ballpoint works. The ballpoint lines that compose Lee’s drawings resemble the marks on ice made by a speed skater—the record of a virtuosic physical performance that exhibits no hesitation or doubt. 
The ballpoint abstractions of Joanne Greenbaum exist at the midpoint of the extremes posed by Kippenberger and Lee, combining the spontaneity and casualness suggested by the pen with a consistent, focused discipline. Greenbaum, although known primarily as a painter, bases much of her practice in a hardcore drawing sensibility that borders on the obsessive, a position that has led to the production of over one hundred sketchbooks featuring ballpoint as a medium since the early 1990s. More than any artist in this exhibition, Greenbaum has integrated the ballpoint into her everyday life, going as far as to work on her sketchbooks while watching television, a situation which has helped free her process from conscious decision, allowing for the production of some of her most sincere and idiosyncratic ballpoint drawings. Ballpoint is clearly the major vehicle for aimless and casual scribbling in the modern world, and Greenbaum has taken this aspect of the pen’s nature and amplified its inventive potential in the service of high art abstraction. Greenbaum’s sketchbooks are humanized by frequent pauses for note taking; including “to do” lists and contact information for friends and acquaintances. As seemingly casual as Greenbaum’s ballpoint drawing are, she takes the medium seriously, only using pens with archival ink. Testifying to the increased popularity of the pen for art making and a concern for its longevity, there are now numerous archival ballpoints,  and Greenbaum has gravitated to a Schmidt P900B, manufactured in Germany.
Russell Crotty started drawing with ballpoint as a child, making hundreds of line drawings that reflected his life in rural northern California. He took up surfing at an early age, and many of his early drawings were pictographs of stick figures riding the crests of doodle-like waves, or simple renderings of the region’s numerous sawmills. For an artist with ability, art school of course meant painting, and Crotty took up the medium but was by and large dissatisfied with the results. In the 1980s, the growing plurality of the art world led to increased interest in breaking down the barriers between high art and the vernacular, a situation that led to the acknowledgment of the importance of graffiti and the increasing integration of comics and cartoons into art making. Reflecting the spirit of the times, Crotty returned to the ballpoint as a primary medium, describing the drawings from the period as “glorified doodles.” Taking the minimalist grid as a compositional format, Crotty created drawings (some of them huge) composed of tiny cells, each filled in with simple ballpoint renderings of things such as smokestacks, breaking waves, and vernacular architecture like Pacific coast beach shacks. Crotty is also a serious amateur astronomer, and some of his grid drawings from the period are inventories of astronomical phenomena, such as the changing face of Mars viewed over time. Crotty’s use of ballpoint for astronomical observation was not just based on aesthetic preference, but also practicality: the ballpoint allowed rapid drawing outdoors at nighttime without worrying about smudging (ballpoint ink dries almost instantaneously). Initially, Crotty’s detailed astronomical drawings were round, due to a telescope’s circular field of view, and in the late 1990s he began making them truly in the round, on fiberglass spheres covered with paper. The inclusion of handwritten text has been a gradual process, starting in the 1980s with captions in artist’s books whose subject was surfing, as separate notational text in his astronomy “atlases,” and the recent inclusion of text as strata in the landscape, offering poetic commentary on the locations portrayed.
The character of ballpoint drawing is not just based on the rolling ball tip itself, but also on the unique qualities of ballpoint ink. Lazlo Biro spent as much time, if not more, on the formulation of the ink as he did on the mechanical engineering, as the rolling ball necessitated a free-flowing ink that did not dry on the ball and clog the pen. Most ballpoint inks are dye based,  not pigment based, because the extremely minute space between the ball and its surrounding metal ferrule precludes anything from passing that isn’t uniformly smooth-textured. The character of ballpoint ink leads to many of its identifying features, such as the color “ballpoint blue” and the way it can be layered on top of itself to the point of forming a glossy, leather-like surface.
Dawn Clements is another artist who recalls working with the pen at an early age, completing her first ballpoint drawings while in grade school. Later, in her teenage years, she remembers writing simple observational text with ballpoint on the wallpaper next to her bed, including notes on the weather and the time of day. Clements expanded on this use of the pen for its notational character in her large-scale ballpoint drawings depicting interiors, which she began in the mid-1990s. Clements also draws with Sumi ink, but goes back and forth to ballpoint to vary both media and speed. “The Sumi drawings are very fast, while the ballpoint drawings are slower, being both more precise and more intimate,” Clements has stated. Many of the ballpoint drawings, such as Barny’s (Leon Morin, Priest) included in this exhibition, have fields of text surrounding their central images, and are records of ambient sound heard by the artist during the drawing process, such as song lyrics and radio interviews. Augmenting the intimacy of the interior spaces portrayed, the text in the ballpoint works bring the images back to everyday, lived experience, and reflects on the pen’s primary usage as a writing tool. “Both the images and text in these drawings is furious note taking in real time,” says the artist. “The paper is like a big blotter pad—nothing is left out.” 
In the early 1990s Rita Ackermann became known for her lyrical, yet tough, paintings of young women, many with diaristic overtones. In 1996 Ackermann turned to ballpoint as a medium when she was making a break with her earlier subject matter, using the pen to depict the sensibility, particularly the violence, of the male mind. Ackermann’s first drawings with ballpoint were on denim as well as canvas, referencing transgressive adolescent expression such as drawing/writing on jeans as well as graffiti. Ballpoint was also a conceptual choice, selected by the artist for its cheap and ignoble associations, plus the fact that it was perceived as being temporal and provisionary. “It lacks a classical background,” Ackermann has stated. “It also has the curious quality that it might fade away and disappear.”  Ackermann’s works on canvas featuring ballpoint also use other media, but the blue, scratchy quality of the pen is immediately recognizable even though it is frequently overlaid with passages of acrylic. These works exhibit a nervous tension between the “low” nature of scribbled ballpoint and the high art associations of expressionist paint handling.
Clearly, many artists bring the ballpoint into their practice as a cultural statement, using the pen as a critical device to probe beneath the surface. Bill Adams first seriously took up drawing with the pen in 1995, immediately connecting with the way that its sensitive yet robust character was a natural conduit for certain emotional experiences. As with many New Yorkers, the trauma of 9/11 heightened Adams’s insecurity, and ballpoint was a medium that seemed to match the tenor of the times. “I respond to the portability of the pen,” the artist has stated. “If you need to escape, the ballpoint can come with you and you can keep working. It provides a way to stay afloat in a desperate situation.” Adams works exclusively with the Fisher AG7 Astronaut Pen, which was designed to operate under extreme conditions, including zero gravity and severe temperatures. Given these facts, it might seem strange that Adams’s main motif has become a cat’s head, but in this image the artist has found an unusual outlet for his emotional concerns. Years ago, Adams had to give away his pet cat, and the memory of this became (in his words) “a standard for melancholy.”  He describes the cat’s image as being “dumb and humdrum,” using adjectives that can also describe general perceptions of the ballpoint itself. Adams’s cat drawings skillfully bring medium and subject into an odd and poetic alignment.
Toyin Odutola capitalizes on the singular character of ballpoint ink in her figurative drawings that focus on portraiture. Odutola, who was born in Nigeria and grew up in California and Alabama, gravitated to the ballpoint as a primary medium in graduate school.
As mentioned earlier, ballpoint ink can be layered on top of itself to the point of forming a dense, burnished, and iridescent surface that resembles glossy leather, a quality Odutola recognized as being capable of transforming paper into a powerful analogy to black skin. The subjects of Odutola’s drawing are identity and race, and her approach presents the body as landscape, a place inhabited by the psyche, and references cultural phenomena that accentuate identity, such as scarification and tattooing. The dense network of parallel ballpoint lines presents not an optical rendering of her subjects, but rather a woven and knotty topography that emphasizes the subjective and psychological. “The pen and ink is like a container that reveals but also hides,” she has stated. “The more information I give in terms of mark-making or texture, the more a person’s state of mind is revealed.” 
Over the past sixty years, the ballpoint pen has become the preeminent writing tool and has gradually been adopted by a diverse range of artists as a major means of expression.
In the present moment, the use of computers and smartphones is once again revolutionizing writing, with keyboards and styluses replacing ballpoint pens for everything from note taking to the signatures on credit card transactions. Yet more ballpoints are being produced and sold than ever before; even while technology is once again shifting the way we communicate with each other, the ballpoint remains a durable and seemingly infinitely adaptable drawing device that can dance on the boundary between the colloquial and the profound. Its tiny, rolling tip is after all a sphere, without front or back, up or down, with only one true direction: forward.
1. The Bic Cristal is the clear plastic ballpoint with the removable, streamlined cap whose design has remained virtually unchanged since its introduction 1951. The Cristal is in the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. Statistics are from Bic’s corporate website: http//www.bicworld.com.
2. Alfred Fairbank, The Story of Handwriting—Origins and Development (London: Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1970), p. 85.
3. For a fascinating account of Biro’s life, see György Muldova’s biography Ballpoint (North Adams, MA: New Europe Books, 2012).
4. “Biro” is still the generic name used for the ballpoint pen in most of the world.
5. In the 1950s, Andy Warhol did observational ballpoint drawings prior to the development of Pop art.
6. Many contemporary ballpoints have the ability to draw a continuous line of as much as 28,000 linear feet, which is over five miles. Mary Bellis, “A Brief History of Writing Instruments; Part 3: The Battle of the Ballpoint Pens,” About.com (http://inventors.about.com/library/weekly/aa101697.htm)
7. Manufacturers that make archival ballpoint pens include Ballagraph, Parker, Papermate, Pilot, Schmidt, and Schneider. The International Organization for Standardization has issued a standard for archival (document) ballpoint ink: ISO 12757-2.
8. Typical ballpoint ink is 40 percent to 50 percent dye.
9. Quoted from a conversation with Dawn Clements, January 18, 2013.
10. Quoted from an email from Rita Ackermann, January 23, 2013.
11. Quoted from a conversation with Bill Adams, February 7, 2013.
12. Quoted in an article on Toyin Odutola by Rebecca Spence, Artnews, March 2012, p. 128.
Art Attack at The Armory Show
by EMILY COLUCCI
14 March 2013
"Perhaps the work that most excited me was a small drawing entitled "All these garlands prove nothing XII" by talented young Nigerian artist Toyin Odutola whose intricate, luminous and beautiful drawings of black figures have been on my radar for a few years."
'The Moment for Ink': Show frees artist
by KIMBERLY CHUN
SF GATE (The San Francisco Chronicle)
Published online - 5:09 pm, Wednesday, March 20, 2013 - and in print.
Arrayed among the more traditional sumi ink works at the Chinese Culture Foundation's group show, "The Moment for Ink," Toyin Odutola's dark, textured ballpoint-ink-and-marker drawings pop - in their intensity, richness and blackness. The very qualities of the work of the Nigerian-born artist, who is often slotted into shows as an African American woman, make this exhibition a special one for her.
"Being a black artist, the first thing people want to talk about is your blackness, the importance of your blackness and your black presence. What I like about this show is that I felt free from that blackness and I could really exploit the pen and do crazy patterns and have that be the focal point of it," says Odutola, 27, who graduated from California College of the Arts last year. "I'm celebrating the ink and what it can do and transforming what it can be."
"It's also nice to have something that came with such a rich history with Chinese literati and the rich history of pen ink and how it's used as a tag in China," adds Odutola, who is now working in Alabama on her May solo show for Jack Shainman Gallery in New York City. "In the fine art world in America, you don't see a lot of pen ink unless it's graphic novels."
The mangas that once inspired Odutola are far away: The self-portraits she made for the exhibit are both eerily anatomical and strangely futuristic, as if she had traced the rhythmic weave of musculature beneath her skin. In "No Difference at All," a figure skeptically regards the viewer from beneath her lids, and in "Whenever the Occasion Arises," she peers to the side, the whites of her eyes satiny and the almost bronze pen strokes resembling those of a tress-obsessed Arcimboldo.
"It's kind of a language I've developed over time that's basically breaking up the face into components and planes," Odutola says of her work. "Inside each plane, I draw gradation marks, and when planes come together, they form sinews, a hairlike weave that's like a landscape of the face."
She ventures a comparison to the portrait deconstructions of Chuck Close: "It's an abstraction that happens from looking really hard and long at a face," she says. "I hope that, looking at these portraits, you'll see a person underneath that mark making."
The Moment for Ink: Through May 18. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Chinese Culture Foundation, 750 Kearny St., S.F. (415) 986-1822. www.c-c-c.org.
Kimberly Chun is a Berkeley writer. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @kimberlychun
A Sense of Self: “Singular Masses” at MCA’s downtown Hyde Gallery.
by DWAYNE BUTCHER
The Memphis Flyer
7 March 2013
The current exhibition in the Hyde Gallery at the Memphis College of Art Nesin Graduate School is "Singular Masses: An Examination of Racial Identity." After last year's "Facts, Fictions, Figures," this is the second year in a row that the Hyde Gallery has hosted an exhibition in February that examines racial stereotypes and blackness to coincide with Black History Month.
In relative terms, the Civil War was not that long ago. More recent still were the end of Jim Crow and the Brown v. Board of Education decision. The Civil Rights Act happened when my generation's parents were teenagers, some starting their families. There has been remarkable progress, but there are also constant reminders of our horrible history of race relations. Mississippi just got around to ratifying the 13th Amendment, and need I mention the KKK march planned in Memphis for the end of the month? Stars and bars, baby.
This is why exhibitions such as these at the Hyde Gallery are important, why the work these seven artists are doing is so important. But group exhibitions like "Singular Masses" can be tricky, especially when addressing such a significant theme. There is nothing that particularly addresses the issue of racial identity in this exhibition except that the artists and/or their subject matter is the African-American self.
There are two notable exceptions in the work of Lester Merriweather (who was included in last year's exhibition) and Anthony Lee, both Memphis artists.
Merriweather's A Brand New Fresh Memorial (Just in Case Another Young Black Child is Murdered) is not only the best piece of the exhibition, but also speaks the most to racial identity. The piece consists of numerous stuffed animals strapped to one of the large columns in the gallery. Stuffed animals are affixed to telephone poles as memorials for recently lost loved ones, victims of murder, drugs, and gun violence. Unfortunately, these monuments serve as a reminder of the difficulties many residents of Memphis have to endure.
Anthony Lee's The Reclamation of Color consists of 20 large-scale house-paint color samples similar to those found at any Lowe's or Home Depot. Each panel is made from a vinyl material called sintra, which is normally used in retail and grocery displays. At the top right corner of each panel is a sticker with a stereotypically racial slur — halfbreed, chink, kike, redneck, wetback, etc. Each slur is not necessarily matched with the racial color it is normally attributed to. It's a reminder of how effortlessly and casually we use these offensive terms each day.
In an effort to give the piece a painterly feel, Lee applied heavy brush strokes of acrylic paint to each panel. The brushstrokes give it a handmade quality and take away the dehumanizing effect of the slurs, especially considering how Lee's other works are created with an exact, machine-like finish — a clean painting process evident in the large works currently on view at ArtsMemphis in the Emmett O'Ryan Award Group Exhibition. These paintings are minimal exercises in geometric, color-based abstraction and speak to Lee's ability to paint seamlessly.
Toyin Odutola's cropped portraits of African-American women, such as D.O. (An Awkward Moment During a Forced Pose), are not about blackness, pe se. But these are beautiful pieces and remind me of the work of Wangechi Mutu, who also features young African and African-American women in staged poses centrally within the frame with plenty of minimally altered negative space around the figure. The way that Odutola renders skin is similar to the way Margaret Munz-Losch treats skin in her work. Instead of replacing the skin with cocoons or maggots like Munz-Losch, Odutola's pieces seem to show skinned body parts exposing highly rendered muscle tissue. It would have benefited this exhibition to include more of Odutola's work.
There is one startling aspect of this exhibition: prices on the titles next to the pieces. Is the Hyde Gallery now acting as a commercial space? The prices next to the works negate the premise of the show, which is supposedly an intellectual conversation about race. Is it about the money or this much-needed statement? It is an unfortunate addition to an otherwise enjoyable exhibition.
Through March 9th
Corrections: D.O. (An Awkward Moment During a Forced Pose) is a portrait of the artist's youngest brother, not a woman. The portrait, however, is meant to be androgynous.
Black Artists: 30 Contemporary Art Makers Under 40 You Should Know
26 February 2013
“As Black History Month comes to a close, we’ve picked 30 young black artists who are contributing to the ongoing conversation of race and representation in contemporary art. Whether through sculpture, photography, video or performance, each artist illuminates the complexity of the self with a unique and bold vision. From Kalup Linzy’s soap opera shorts to Kehinde Wiley’s traditional portraits updated with black models, the following young artists show there is no single way to address race in contemporary culture. Playful or meditative, sarcastic or somber, the following artists tackle the subject with a ferocious curiosity, passion and vulnerability.”
Born in 1985
“Odutola crafts intricately detailed portraits out of ballpoint pen and ink, turning the human face into an ornate visual landscape.”
[Pictured] Toyin Odutola All these garlands prove nothing XI, 2013 pen ink and marker on paper 14 x 17 inches Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
Richly Layered Ballpoint Pen & Marker Portraits
by PAUL CARIDAD
22 February 2013
Although these striking portraits by Toyin Odutola appear to be digital, they are actually illustrations using markers and many layers of ballpoint pen. Through her work, the Nigerian-American artist shows the many layers and constant evolving of an individual, often using herself or her brothers as the subjects. To achieve the darkness in the hair, she uses up to five layers of pen, but the main focus of her work is meant to be the skin. Just as the ink of a ballpoint pen is not really black, her images redefine blackness. She has published an abridged version of her masters thesis from California College of the Arts in a book called Alphabet: A Selected Index of Anecdotes & Drawings where she explains how her life experiences have shaped her art.
In a statement about her methodology, the immensely talented Toyin Odutola said:
“Where some may see flat, static narratives, I see a spectrum of tonal gradations and realities. What I am creating is literally black portraiture with ballpoint pen ink. I’m looking for that in-between state in an individual where the overarching definition is lost. Skin as geography is the terrain I expand by emphasizing the specificity of blackness, where an individual’s subjectivity, various realities and experiences can be drawn onto the diverse topography of the epidermis. From there, the possibilities of portraying a fully-fledged person are endless.”
Critics' Picks: Houston — The Progress of Love
7 January 2013
“The Progress of Love”
THE MENIL COLLECTION
1533 Sul Ross Street
December 2–March 27
""The Progress of Love” is a set of three distinct, concurrent exhibitions—held at the Menil Collection in Houston; the Center for Contemporary Arts in Lagos, Nigeria; and the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in Saint Louis—that investigate contemporary notions of love in Africa, Europe, and the United States. The project draws its name from an eighteenth-century painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard of a European couple in the throes of romance, in a garden; this painting has been reworked into a sculptural installation by Yinka Shonibare, The Swing (after Fragonard), 2001, which features a life-size, headless mannequin in African print textiles sitting on a swing in the midst of artificial foliage.
The Menil Collection supported a series of trips for lead curator and African scholar Kristin Van Dyke to travel to the continent, so that she could conduct research for her first contemporary show. After dialogue with curator Bisi Silva at the CCA in Lagos, Van Dyke’s thoughts about the exhibition turned to love and the various ways contemporary artists deal with cultural constructions of emotional and physical connection. When Van Dyke became director of the Pulitzer Foundation in 2011, its museum also joined the project. With twenty-two artists, Houston’s show is by far the largest, while the Lagos and Saint Louis sites feature seven and four artists respectively.
There is a huge array of media in the exhibit: photo, video, painting, sculpture, installation, sound, and more, from diverse artists (not exclusively of African descent) in Africa, Europe, and the US. One particularly powerful piece is an installation by Romuald Hazoumé with video and reading materials in a cardboard structure documenting the NGO the artist founded: NGO for Beninois Solidarity with Endangered Westerners. The often humorous videos invert traditional logic surrounding notions of development economics prevalent in the West, as people on the street in Benin are asked to donate out of a sense of love—to help poor white people in Europe and America. Among a plethora of other compelling work in the show, particular standouts are photos by acclaimed artist Zanele Muholi of lesbian and transgender South Africans in intimate settings and public spaces, and textured, vibrant ink portraits by Toyin Odutola.
This exhibition is also on view at the Center for Contemporary Arts in Lagos until January 27, 2013, and at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis until April 20, 2013."
On view at the Menil Coillection's "The Progress of Love" exhibition (2012-2013).
Diary of a Creep
The New York Times
5 January 2013
Portrait contribution for Rend Smith's article "Diary of a Creep" in the "Sunday Review" Opinionator. “Was it all for naught,” (2012), was featured to help illustrate Smith's text (commentating on his experiences with skin discoloration and shifting identity).
The New York Times
by HOLLAND COTTER, KEN JOHNSON, KAREN ROSENBERG and ROBERTA SMITH
3 January 2013
"26 JULY, 4:50 AM’ BY TOYIN ODUTOLA, STUDIO MUSEUM IN HARLEM
The young Ms. Odutola is a Nigerian-born portraitist who works in blackness and light. Taking family members and friends as sitters, she begins each bust-length likeness with a loose sketch done in color washes, then fills it with patterns of tight, narrow, precisely drawn linear bands done in ballpoint pen.
The bands cross over and under one another like weaving or like the tissues and sinews of musculature, creating subtle highlights where they curve, giving the skin a subtle luster. And no matter how dense and black looking the patterns are, the facial features of the sitters come through in minute detail, literally eyelash by eyelash.
In one sense Ms. Odutola is interested in examining notions of blackness as a race-defining attribute, one that can make people, depending on the context, either invisible or vulnerable. Certain other, older artists, notably Kerry James Marshall, have done remarkable and complex things with the concept of blackness as a graphic marker of race, and Ms. Odutola, whose work can be seen in a group show called “Fore” at the Studio Museum in Harlem, takes the idea in a direction of her own. The blackness in her portraits is not blackness at all, in an essential, finite way.
The ballpoint ink colors she uses range from copper-brown to deep blue. Her sitters range across the ethnic spectrum. The colors that begin each portrait show through at the end. Beaming through chinks in the dark weave they look like stars in a night sky or filtered rainbows.”
Forbes Magazine '30 Under 30' List, 2012
Art & Style Category
Toyin Odutola, Artist, 27
"Using ballpoint pens and other drawing utensils, Nigerian-born Odutola makes intricate portraits from photographs. She has had a one-woman show at the Jack Shainman gallery in New York City, and exhibited in group shows at the Menil Collection in Houston and at the Studio Museum in Harlem."
-- Susan Adams
Redefining “Blackness”: An interview with Toyin Odutola
by ZACHARY ROSEN
Africa is a Country
Published: 18 December 2012
The richly layered portraits of Nigerian-American artist Toyin Odutola have been on the Africa is a Country radar for quite some time. Painstakingly created with marker and ballpoint pen, Toyin’s drawings have been making waves in the art world and across social media platforms. Aesthetically striking in their own right, Toyin’s unique style sparks important questions about the concept of identity. Her pieces tempt us to wonder about the identities that society projects onto us and more reflectively, how we have been sculpted by time into who we are at any given moment.
2012 has been an important year for Toyin’s progression as an artist. She received her MFA from California College of the Arts, published her first book of drawings — Alphabet, completed two residencies, including one at the legendary Tamarind Institute and exhibited works in numerous group shows including the “Fore” exhibition which is currently running at the Studio Museum in Harlem until March 10, 2013. With a major solo exhibition lined up at the Jack Shainman Gallery in April, the year 2013 is poised to be quite notable for Toyin as well.
We spoke with Toyin about her thoughts on post-racial aesthetics, perceptions of “African” art, androgynous figures and the nostalgic crystallization of past selves through portraiture.
Your predominant style of drawing involves creating a figure with many layers of ink, do the layers contribute to the mapping of the skin’s geography?
>>Absolutely, in the sense that the process of making layering, is, in essence, geography. I think a lot of people look at my style and they think it’s a means to an end, but honestly it’s the only factor. I think about what other people read in the work and it’s interesting, they find other things that they like, but for me it’s always been the skin. The skin is the most interesting thing. And it’s the reason I go into it as hard as I do. Many people will say “I really like the eyes,” or “I really like how you draw the hair,” but to me that’s embellishment for the skin. It all boils down to the skin. The whole geography of skin thing has kind of shifted I guess, with color — the sort of color pieces that I’m working on — because I think people are seeing that the language is expanding. So for them it’s like, well, are you trying to create a whole new geography, an imagined geography, as opposed to something that’s a little bit more personal to the subject or grounded to reality in any way. I never really was grounded to reality, at all. My work doesn’t look like anything in the real world. So for me it’s always been an abstraction — but it’s an abstraction that is the lie that creates the reality. In the abstraction something real comes forth.
From some of your earlier interviews and then through your book, the way you actually talk about the skin and blackness has evolved and shifted.
>>I definitely sense that, but I’m also a bit nervous about it, because when I started this whole thing — around 2009 — it was just a means of making me not go crazy, honestly. It was so immersive and I could just lose myself in the meditative form of repetitive archs and puzzle-like form that I would never pay attention to the fact I was homeless and I had no job and I was really depressed. From that really dark place, I gained sort of a thing. For me every time I see the transition I remember that dark place because it was the reason I started.
Discovering and finding comfort in your own identity is a major theme of your bookAlphabet, how has your art evolved as your conception of your identity has evolved?
>>Alphabet was my thesis. The way you present a thesis in my school (CCA) is that you have to talk about everything that your work is about. The program was really immersive and so they wanted you to provide a thorough context for your work. Alphabet became an Oprah Winfrey session, where I just poured out everything and Alphabet, the book, was a much-abridged version of that. It was both cathartic and nice to get it published, like a form, and say: this is my life. On the one hand, I’m this black woman artist, but on the other hand I come from a very specific identity and a very specific string of events. Some of it is recognizable to people and some of it is not. Alphabet was a shift happening in me and I wanted to record it, and I did, and my work has changed with it.
Often in popular discourse, the term “African” is not simply a geographical descriptor, it comes with cultural projections, As a Nigerian-American artist, to what extent is your artwork labeled “African” and how appropriate do you find that branding?
>>I’m proud that it’s called “African”. And I’ll say that without having an illusion of what Africa is tied onto. Because my work and many works like it are whistleblowers to the illusion of Africa. I think there’s this idea that African artists have this soulfulness that is inherent in the continent and create these grand narratives. But what I’m doing is, literally, drawing people. In a very basic way. With a pen. And that sort of resourcefulness is very African I think. Because you take something that seems very rudimentary, and you really go ham on. That might be something that is distinctly African. On the other hand, I’m specific to being Nigerian, so when I hear “African” it just seems like they’re lumping me into something immediately and not taking the time to research me. It’s annoying because whenever people talk about art history they just talk about Europe; so when you hear artists say “I’m a European artist” people are like “Okay, but say you’re Italian.” They take the time to be specific with Europeans so why can’t they take the time to be specific with me? It just seems kind of lazy.
>>Sometimes it is a good tag. Sometimes it is not. It’s a love-hate thing. So, again, whenever I hear “African” I don’t really know how to respond to it. I feel very proud to be a part of something that up to this point has been used very negatively; something that has been excluded or omitted in the art world. So it’s really nice to be someone who comes from that continent and says, “Hey I have a voice and you better listen because I have a right to it.” On the other hand it’s getting old because it’s 2012 and people still don’t know where Nigeria is located. It’s always going to be a struggle, probably for the rest of our lives, sadly. Maybe when I’m 40 people will be like, “I totally know where Nigeria is, I totally know about this culture.” The way that they know about France.
As a follow up to that, what do you think when some exhibitions are curated as a collection of “African” artists and they box you in to being an “African” artist as opposed to being a simply an artist?
>>I just returned from a show of African-American artists [“Fore”] and that was really interesting. I think that was the first time in New York where I was with some high class African-American people. A majority. It’s fascinating to me because we need those things. That’s the sad thing. It’s because of our society that we need those exhibitions, even though they’re something of a double-edged sword in their own way: they’re limiting us to a very specific way of seeing the world — but what they’re aiming to do is bring that specificity for people to come in and they see our universe. But how many people are going to go in without some kind of preconceived notion?
>>I think whenever anyone lumps me into an African genre, again I’m proud to be in that show, I’m happy that that show even exists, but I don’t want it just to be black people coming to the show, or only Africans. Yes my work deals with that subject matter, but that doesn’t mean you can’t come and see it if you are Asian, Latino or Caucasian. It doesn’t matter to me. It’s the fact that you’re even allowing the time to investigate my work. That is why that African show is needed — often times a lot of black artists aren’t included in shows, unless you’re a super mega artist. If you’re an emerging artist, you need that kind of exposure early on in your career. Not everyone is Kara Walker or Glenn Ligon, for whom it of course also took a while to be who they are. I mean Julie Mehretu took a minute to be Julie Mehretu and she wasn’t even dealing with representational work. It is what it is.
Your works often explore elements of “blackness”, though your portraits depict people with a variety of cultural backgrounds; do you consider the redefinition of “blackness” in your work to be post-racial?
>>Oooh. That’s such a dirty and weird word, “post-racial”. Thelma Golden is the one who started the idea of post-racial in the 90’s. I don’t think we’re post-racial, ever, until people stop thinking about race. Which is not possible. One of the things that I like about Hank Willis Thomas — the air I breathe — is that he is such a genius in undermining the ridiculousness of race. I posted a video where he boils it down, he says, “[race] has been the most successful marketing ploy in the history of the world.” I just love that. And it’s totally true. Because everything that we think about another race is false. It’s completely false. The whole thing about blackness for me is that I wanted to make the work as dark as possible when I started because I’m a dark person and I wanted to capture what it feels like to be black. And then it just evolved. I started thinking, what if I draw this Asian guy as dark as possible…what does he become? Does he become black because I draw it or because they think he’s black? I even did his hair the way he has it. And still people will be like, “Oh. What is she trying to say?” And I’m like, “No, it’s an Asian guy that I just drew this way.” Suddenly it’s about my experience and my blackness and it’s not about him at all anymore and that’s a really fascinating process for me to digest. I’m the devil’s advocate when it comes to blackness. It’s always going to fascinate me because I’ve been treated a certain way since I was a child because of my blackness, which has been imposed on me. So for me to explore that in my work is to question why I was treated this way and how people read other people.
>>To me the interesting thing about blackness now is the pen. When you see a black pen, it’s not black at all. I love the moment when people see my work in person and they’re like, “Oh, but it’s not really black?” Taadaa! That’s why I use pen. Because it’s not black. The ink is not black.
These days, if you draw a black figure, because you’re coming from a place where you’ve tried to understand blackness as a concept, are you drawing that figure with a narrative of blackness or is it simply to say this is a person and we don’t have to deconstruct a racial message?
>>Blackness was a concept in my earlier work. It didn’t have to do with the person, it had to do with the concept of blackness, literally, because I wouldn’t even give them names. I would call them “female this” or “boy that”. I didn’t really think about people until 2011. It was just: here’s a person who is black. And black in itself is twisted, because that is a material description. So before, I was definitely aware of the history of blackness in aesthetics, especially representational aesthetics. When you’re doing portraiture and you’re a black person and you’re portraying black figures, there’s always going to be a loaded history. I had to go through that to get where I am now, which is a very freeing place, where the black figures that I make can be various. The work isn’t limited to that history anymore. And I think it has to do with the time that we’re in. People are more free to be themselves and they’re black, whereas before you had to represent blackness so much and you had to sacrifice a little bit of yourself to do that. Now it’s more like I want to be me and me can be all of these things at once and have nothing to do with black social representation at all.
>>I actually am a super formalist — a dirty word in art school. No one wants you to be a formalist, you have to have a message. I look at Lucian Freud because he really was the embodiment of his craft being the message. The time it took, the labor, the way of looking at a person, that was the message. Because he drew predominantly white people so no one really assumed anything else. Take Elizabeth Peyton for example. The thing that really infuriates me is that I can’t be an Elizabeth Peyton: painting and drawing people in my life, who aren’t famous and who have no significance besides my connection to them, but I draw them in this way where I’m full-on adorning these people and all the public has to do is digest them as pretty. Peyton’s gotten a little more political recently doing portraits of Kanye West, but of course black people, they’re always political. That’s when her message shifted. I think for me the moment I came out to do the work it was considered political, because it’s the idea of seeing black men, black women, androgynous figures overall, being presented in this way was very different so of course I’m going to have to push a message with everything. But in the end I just want everybody to think “That’s a really pretty blue.” “I like that lash right there.” Because that’s what I see. I see the lashes, I see the fine points, but no one wants to focus on that because it trivializes a bigger issue and I understand that. The bigger issue is that we still have issues of representation in this country and that’s a fucking big problem. Sometimes it’s very frustrating to be an artist in that arena and you’re like, “I don’t want to always have to represent everyone.” But at the same time I have to, because no one else will. It’s the great burden of post-racial artists.
Do you think in your lifetime you’ll be able to get to a place where you’ll be able to transcend race with your art?
>>If you look at black history, especially women artists, usually the moment when they get famous for being what I’m seeking out is the moment they die. Think Zora Neale Hurston or Josephine Baker, women who were very specific about not looking just at race, just at social representation, but rather at the artform itself. Time had to shift. But then I think about people like Toni Morrison who in every essence created works where the foundation has been about blackness and black representation, but she’s transcended it completely. And she’s still alive and she’s still kicking it, but when people think about Toni Morrison, what’s the first think they think about? “Mmm hmmm Negro Spiritual” [singing]. And she’s more than that. So maybe when she passes away – and I don’t wish that upon her – but chances are, that’s when it’s gonna shift. Same with brilliant luminaries like bell hooks and Octavia Butler. I don’t know, maybe in my lifetime…I’m not holding my breath though.
Many of your drawings are self-portraits, what drives you to capture many different variations of your own image?
>>There’s a Romare Bearden quote that I posted on my website where he talks about how it’s always difficult to draw yourself because you’re always at issue, you’re always changing, especially if you’re an artist because you see everything. Observing yourself is very uncomfortable and you’re more attuned to a shift. It’s very difficult to draw yourself and think that’s it. A mirror isn’t the only form that can capture you, you can do it in so many different ways. Noah Kalina, the guy who takes his photograph everyday, is a brilliant example of that. The idea that you’re always at issue, you’re always changing even when you look exactly the same, with the exact same face, everything is shifting. I draw myself because I want to capture a shift. That’s why I always get tattoos, they’re temporal, they represent a time that’s passed. It’s a moment to take a break and look at myself properly. It’s not just how I look, it’s what has happened. As James Baldwin says, “Where I’ve been and what I’ve been.”
>>The reason I started doing self portraits in the first place was to see myself. Not just in a mirror or in a photo, To really take the time and look. Through that I’m getting at the psychology of looking, I’m really getting at what I was thinking, what I was feeling. There are moments when I think, “Oh my god I hate my face,” but I also have moments where I think — and it sounds totally narcissistic and it’s not meant to be — “I have a really interesting face.” It’s the same reason why I’ll draw my brothers ‘til the day I die, because they have the most interesting faces. Especially my youngest brother. He’s 6’7” and he’s got these huge eyes and he’s always looking at me with this look of incredulity. He’s like “Really?” I love that. He has so many variations of that “really?” He can do “really?” from the back. He can do “really?” from the side. He can do “really?” looking up.
You were born in Ife, Nigeria, but you have lived much of your life in California and Alabama, all very different cultural environments. How has this plural cultural experience shaped your artwork?
>>It’s helped in color. It’s helped in tone. It’s helped in creating puzzle-like forms. I always go back to memory when I work. For me it’s constant. They’re not even places I have lived in the past tense, they’re always relived in a way. I’m still there and they’re still shaping me.
Your drawings portray people not only as they are, but often as they were at some previous time; is there a certain nostalgia captured in your pieces for the selves of moments passed?
>>It’s all nostalgia. It’s all about time. The reason why I’m always obsessed with capturing myself is because I know I’m never going to be that way ever again. There’s this piece I did called All these garlands prove nothing (2012), which I made when I had super long hair. That piece got damaged in Hurricane Sandy and I was really bummed about it. It wasn’t the only one that got damaged, but it was the one that was hit the most. There’s a lot of emotion involved with the series I’m working on now. It’s the idea of literally something lost and what you do in response to that. So I started drawing all the hairstyles I’ve ever had. Which are a lot actually. I had this punk thing, I had an afro, I had long hair. You’d think I was schizophrenic, but it really was just me trying to discover myself and figure out what I can get away with. While I’m working on this piece, even though I’m spending a lot of time on the details, I’m aware that people are not going to see that or it has the potential to be gone. All that time I spent doesn’t matter anymore. The piece doesn’t exist in that same way again. That was a big wake up call recently. The amount of time I spend on my work and what it really means. Does the time spent equal the time that’s lost?
Some of the figures in your drawings appear androgynous, is there a message about gender that you are trying to convey through such pieces?
>>I am a huge fan of androgyny. I think more people should be androgynous in portrayals. I embrace the masculine and feminine side of myself and I like to explore that in my drawings. When I draw my brothers in particular, I exploit the feminine. I always give them huge lashes and I always capture them in poses that are not quintessential black male poses. There’s one piece that’s based on a photo I took at the Abuja airport, which is absolute chaos, where my brother’s head is cocked up and there’s a tinge of terror in his eyes. He was trying so hard to be this calm, cool black dude. I loved that. I called the piece Uncertain yet Reserved (2012) because he was reserving everything. He was trying so hard to hold onto his blackness, his maleness, but he was very scared and neither of us knew what was going on. It’s the slight sense of uncertainty where his eyes are wavering. I love that kind of portrayal. The whole point of exploiting that gender construct is to get at the person and not get at the label that society wants to put on them. It’s all about the social construct of an identity and the reality of a person, which are very different things.
I’ve always been some who’s been very androgynous. I’m glad I’m a woman. I love being a woman, but I’m also aware that I have very masculine sides to me. That’s something for black women that you don’t see a lot.
You are a prolific blogger and instagram user, documenting your artistic process and your musings, does interacting with your audience impact your pieces?
>>I remember when [blogging] was a really weird thing I did on my own and I had ten friends. It was really personal. It was me. I would go back and I would say, “What did I do with that piece again?” and I would literally go back into my archive and I would look it up and watch the different stages because I was so obsessive about documenting everything. I would watch how I had constructed it. No one else gets it but I do so I would look at those pictures and think, “I got it. I know how I did that piece, now I’m going to apply it to this one.” But then suddenly the audience also got involved. There would be questions and it turned into a dialogue. Back then it was a beautiful moment where there were these very cerebral questions that really made me take a step back. I often came up with rather long answers, but it was because I was thinking. What those questions did for me was provide questions for my thesis. Which is what Alphabet is about. That’s why I wanted to publish it — because it started on the blog. If I hadn’t had those questions I don’t think I would be eloquent enough to talk about my work. Dominic Grady would ask questions, Derica Shields would ask, people like that who were thinking as they were seeing my work. I received really hard-hitting questions where it took me three days to respond to. Now I get the questions where someone asks, “How do you figure out your color palette?” I want to say, “Figure it out yourself!” I’m not going to answer everything. There’s a lot of really young people that follow my blog now and I totally get that because when I was 17 I was also wondering, “What oil medium does Lucian Freud use? Does he use linseed oil? Oh my god.” Can you imagine if Lucian Freud had a blog? I would kill him with questions. Every time I get annoyed with questions I imagine Picasso having a Tumblr, I’m sure people would ask him the same thing. Or Matisse.
On your blog Obia the Third, you often share quotes that resonate with you from the likes of Zadie Smith and Virginia Woolf. How does literature inform your artwork?
>>Well, it’s really great for titles. I’ve always loved reading ever since I was a kid. I remember the first time I read a Zadie Smith book, who I adore. I think she’s the female literary equivalent of me as an artist because she’s always questioning herself and that’s something I do when I work. I love to read interviews with her equally as much as I love to read her books because they are such brilliant windows into her world. Same with James Baldwin. Interviews with James Baldwinare the Holy Grail. He’s so on it, he’s so aware. I’ve read Another Country 50 billion times.
>>We live in a world where we’re so inundated with visual language that people think they know what they’re seeing when they don’t. So you need literature to hone it into something very specific. I’ve noticed many times when I leave my pieces untitled, peoples’ imaginations will run crazy. So it’s about taking control of what I’m making and getting to a point where I’d like the audience to start from instead of just having them start from wherever they feel like. If you look at any major artist, they have to write something. We can’t just leave it at the art alone anymore. You have to write so you have to know what good literature is. My style is very much a reflection of people I read. Literature allows me to properly talk about my work. If I were ever to meet any of these people I think I would probably cry. I’m terrified too, because I would probably get a restraining order on myself.
>>But here’s a question, how accessible should writers and artists be? I always question that, especially with my blog. How much is too much? I’m getting to that point where I’m thinking I need to take a break because people start thinking you owe them something. No artist owes you anything. So how accessible do I want to be and how much mystery do I want to keep? I used think mystery was bad for a very long time. I thought I had to be as transparent as possible. And now I’m like, “No, I need to protect myself.” I’ve had a couple shows were people come up and they touch me. And I understand that because I was always someone who was a fan. But now someone is a fan of me, which I find incredibly crazy because I’m a crazy person. Online life and real life interaction is very different for me. If someone is going to message me online, there can be this tone of authority. That’s where I feel the access stops. But if you come up to me in person and you say you just want to talk to me for like 5 minutes, I’ll talk to you. Online it feeds into the fantasy of what I am, but if you talk to me in person you get to see that I’m just me and that I’m awkward and silly.
You’ve mentioned Hank Willis Thomas, Kara Walker, Kerry James Marshall, Lucian Freud and Korehiko Hino among the artists you admire. Who would you most like to collaborate with?
>>Hank is N°1 because he’s such a good collaborator. He’s the collaborator king. Kerry James Marshall too, but I’d be so terrified I probably would end up doing nothing, I’d just watch him the whole time. For a lot of these people I would just want to be in the same studio working with them, but not necessarily literally collaborating. I would love to meet Takehiko Inoue, the guy who did that Vagabond series that I love so much. I just want to be in his studio drawing with him. His energy to me is so inspiring. If you see him work he’s like a machine. He’s making these huge pieces. He’s the only reason that I think I have a possibility of doing large work because he’s doing ridiculous detail.
Hank Willis Thomas has been a part of your career from early on and has facilitated your development as an artist, he clearly digs your work, so what is preventing the Hank-Toyin collaboration from actually happening?
>>I feel like he’s just so busy, but it’s probably gonna happen. Knowing Hank, something’s gonna come up. The reason I studied at CCA was because of him. He graduated from that school and I thought if this guy went there and was able to make that kind of work, I am in. He’s the reason I’m even having this interview. I joke around a lot, but I owe him so much. He’s been so supportive. He’s the kind of person that you would want as a mentor because he’s honest, he just tells it as it is. In the art world, no one can prepare you for this craziness. It’s so nice to have someone to help you navigate because it is treacherous.
>>So someday. I hope so. Put it on blast. Say, Hank, I’m ready to collaborate.
You have a solo exhibition scheduled for April 2013 at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York City, is there a theme that unifies the pieces you will show at that installation?
>>I’m trying. I’m all over the place because my interests have been all over the place. Ok, I’ll give you an Africa is a Country exclusive. Amber. That’s all I’m going to say. Every bit of the definition of amber is what I’m really interested in right now. And it’s been making sense for the color choices I’ve been making recently in the last few months. But it’s really hard for me to bring pieces together for a show. Even for [my previous show] MAPS it was like two separate shows. There was a lot of older work and then there was a lot of this new sequential work. At the end of the day it’s probably going to be that way. Two ways of seeing will definitely play into it. I have the whole gallery this time, which terrifies me. I’m excited, but I’m also dreading it a little bit because I really don’t know what people are thinking. At all.
>>There are a lot of people saying I should do a life-sized portrait. I’ve done full body before. For me whenever I introduce naked bodies it’s a whole other conversation. Do I want to have that conversation? I’ve had people be annoyed that I don’t do full bodies and I just say, “Trust me. There’s a reason I don’t do naked bodies.” I did it before and people think, “Oh my god those are her boobs!” First thing. And then of course it becomes this thing about slavery. People say I’m commentating on that, which I never am. I might do one and make it really uncomfortable for people. Something really inappropriate. And maybe then they will get off my back. But they’ll probably want more. They’ll say, “Why don’t you do 5 more of those pieces?” The full body thing is interesting in the sense of doing something like Laylah Ali’s Greenheads; something that deals with a narrative. If I present a naked body, it’s going to be a group of them doing something. And I don’t want it to be referring to some classical arrangement, I want it to be its own story, in its own world. And that takes time and planning and you really have to know what you want to do ahead of time, which I never do. So it’s not something that’s out of my purview.
In the letter A in Alphabet you describe the people you’ve been during your lifetime; who are you at this very moment?
>>Still trying to figure that out. I’d say I’m very indecisive. Unsatisfied. A completely self-indulgent draftswoman who came back to the South because she needs to find grounding at a crazy crazy time. Someone who’s questioning her very image and the mythology around people more than ever.
Toyin was born in Ife, Nigeria and raised largely in Alabama. Her self-published book Alphabet is available here. Find Toyin on Tumblr, Instagram and Twitter. As a tribute to the manner in which Toyin methodically documents her artwork on her blog, the images above illustrate the progression of how her portraits come to life. Some excerpts from the video interview can be found on YouTube.
Critics' Picks: New York — Fore
18 December 2012
THE STUDIO MUSEUM IN HARLEM
144 West 125th Street
November 11–March 10
Featuring work by twenty-nine different artists—many of them represented through multiple contributions—“Fore” continues in the vein of the Studio Museum’s previous group shows (the alliterative “Freestyle,” 2001, “Frequency,” 2005–2006, and “Flow,” 2008). The exhibitions have helped introduce emerging talent in a number of different media, from painting to site specific installation. To be sure, many of the artists in “Fore” have already staked out notable places in the contemporary scene. Noah Davis contributes with Found Photo, 2012, a characteristically arresting portrait of a foregrounded young man in three-quarter profile, set against a window frame and an abstract section recalling a vagrant Clyfford Still painting. Equally striking is Jennifer Packer’s group of canvases, painted in a loose, unceremonious hand—a hand fittingly wed to their imagery of lounging and loafing. Letting the oil paint occasionally pool and coagulate on the surface of the works, Packer underscores their unhurried informality. Firelei Báez’s gouache drawings on paper are, by contrast, meticulously rendered. Made up of floral, decorative patterns and set onto the empty spaces of found, yellowing book pages, Báez’s lone bodies draw upon popular imagery, Caribbean history, and the work of Francisco de Goya. Hung at a slight distance from the wall, the paintings demonstrate a playful vitality and elliptical, literary imagery that bring the pages alive, as if drawing out a faded narrative strand sunk into the weft of yellowed paper.
Painting is by no means the only mode here. Sadie Barnette’s deadpan objects/installations—like Untitled (Boombox), 2012, with its eponymous appliance painted white, its cassette port improbably stuffed with dirt—are striking in their quiet incongruity. The semiotics of color (or its lack) perhaps conjures up a parallel discourse here, particularly given the upshot of a made-over “ghetto blaster.” Yet the works also evince an unadorned lyricism, free of any heavy-handed conceit. Video finds poignant treatment and humorous nuance in Steffani Jemison’s Maniac Chase, 2008–2009, and Nicole Miller’s two-channel Daggering, 2012, which juxtaposes footage of the artist dancing ballet with footage of Caribbean dance-hall “daggering” (a bawdy and raucous dance craze). Propriety and defiant indecorum tangle here in an extended pas de deux that conjures up the tensions of female young adulthood. Other highlights include the splintered signage of Brenna Youngblood’s Untitled, 2012, and Toyin Odutola’s pen-and-ink portraits, with their looming visages and literary allusions.
—ARA H. MERJIAN
Racial Redefinition in Progress: ‘Fore’ at Studio Museum in Harlem
by HOLLAND COTTER
The New York Times
Published: 29 November 2012
"Portraits by another artist, Toyin Odutola, who was born in Nigeria and now lives in Los Angeles, are more offbeat and generate interesting ideas. Ms. Odutola makes her sitters so black that their forms read like solid, featureless silhouettes from across a room. Only up close do you see that their eyes are wide open, and their skin is a porous weave of ropy ink lines, with rainbow color glinting through like light from behind."
Corrections: Artist does not reside in Los Angeles, and the artwork featured in the multimedia section (3rd pictured above) is in fact, “Untitled,” Pen ink and marker on paper, 14 x 11 inches, (2011).
by Susan Tallman
Art in Print
For more than half a century Tamarind has been offering residencies to up-and-coming artists, hoping to lure them into prolonged engagement with lithography (and to give Tamarind printers-in-training exposure to disparate artistic aims and approaches). It can be hit-or-miss, and Toyin Odutola is very young (she just received her MFA this year), but one glance at her ink drawings, with their brilliantly carved silhouettes and scattered moments of sinewy shine, was probably enough to convince Tamarind to lay odds on her printmaking.
Odutola’s residency was part of a larger Tamarind project that brought together artists of African descent from Brazil and the United States. (Odutola was born in Nigeria, grew up in Alabama, and lives in California.) Implicit in such a project are themes of displacement and otherness. Odutola, however, is less interested in blackness as a foil to whiteness, but as something in and of itself—a color, a graphic device, a cultural identity. This is a set of concerns ready-made for print processes. Two of the prints she did at Tamarind were black on white and dynamically graphic. Two other images, however, were released in both black-and-white and color versions. But while “color lithograph” usually suggests something more vibrant than its binary cousin, Odutola has used blue and brown to replace contrast and clarity with a kind of twilight shine. Forms loom out of darkness rather than asserting themselves as pattern.
In these images Odutola challenges the assumption that the black marks disrupting white surfaces is some universal norm. It’s an idea with profound implications.
Q&A: Toyin Odutola on Drawing, Chinese Art, and What It Really Means to Have a Big Head
by ALEXANDRA BELL
Wednesday, 7 November 2012
THE VILLAGE VOICE: Arts
The portrait artist readies for a group show at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
Toyin Odutola’s pen-and-ink drawings are part of the upcoming group show "Fore" at the Studio Museum in Harlem (November 11 through March 10). "Fore" is the fourth installment in Studio Museum's "F" series, which showcases the work of newer artists of African descent. Held every four years, the "F" series has exhbited work from some of today's premiere black artists. At just 27, Odutola is quickly becoming a noted portraitist. In 2011, her first solo show at Jack Shainman Gallery—they represent her—sold out before opening day.
Born in Ife, Nigeria, Odutola moved with her family to Berkeley, California, at the age of five and later to Huntsville, Alabama. Her drawings, which she typically creates with just an everyday ballpoint pen, often arise from an encounter with an interesting face and evolve into near-multidimensional statements on identity.
The Voice chatted with Odutola via video about black images, art in Alabama, and why the face makes for better art than the body.
You started getting serious about art in college. What kind of work were you doing?
I was doing all kind of things. When you start college, you do a lot of foundation courses—you do painting, you do graphic design. Drawing was something I was interested in since I was very little, but I didn’t really know that drawing was something I was going to keep doing after college—it was just something I kind of did on my own. And the style developed—that I’m kind of known for now—developed in college on my own. I was playing around with the contours of the face and different components and things and it fell from that. I graduated, and of course you don’t have a job, and you’re sitting in your parent’s basement and you keep drawing and working at McDonald’s and then you kind of build and build and build. I built up a portfolio I thought was strong, and applied to grad school at CCA. I just graduated. I don’t really know how I got here—just some steps—step after step.
A majority of your work depicts the human face. Why did you choose that part of the body?
It’s two things. One, I’m more interested in the face than the body. I sometimes feel like the body—and this could be my own projection—but I feel like the body is contentious, and whenever you show a body, whether male or female, immediately people kind of have this image with representational work. People say, “Oh, that’s a penis” and “Oh, those are breasts.” Human beings cannot separate—it’s just a go-to thing. And for me, it’s about identity, so identity doesn’t necessarily have to be a body—it has to be identifying a face. The conversation is more interesting when it’s directly looking at the face, the countenance.
Secondly, I’m really fascinated by this concept inBenin ancient sculpture, which came from where I was born, in Ife. Benin sculpture is all about the face—the face in Yoruba culture is often referred to as the “crown,” and it’s the most important part. If you look at a lot of sculpture from Nigeria in this time—12th century and 16th century—the head’s always bigger than the body. You always see sculptures where the head’s huge and the body is tiny. My dad would always joke with me and say, “Us Nigerians are very big-headed.’ [Laughs.] No, I think it’s about identity. I’m attracted to that, I’m attracted to the face more.
And black figures? You draw primarily black figures.
Yes and no. It’s a trick.
Of course they’re black figures because they’re drawn in black pen, but not all of the figures are of African American descent, or at least the reference isn’t. One of the things I like to play with is, “What is black?” Is it because I drew it? Is it because it looks black? Is it because you think the figure is black? Because a lot of it is just a filter, and the filters get more and more obstructed by whatever people think the image is about and not really what it is. So often times I don’t tell people a lot about the work because I think they create a mythology around it, which is far more interesting than what it actually is. I give little tidbits in titles, but I like that there’s a slight ambiguity—not too much—but enough so people can invent their own stories.
How does the color of your subject influence the way you approach your art?
One thing that I’m very interested in is composition and how interesting the gaze is. Often I’ll take a photo of someone—they can be Asian or black or white, and I just really like their face. I want to take their face and put it into this image. Of course, that could be me just inventing a character too—I’m not going to deny that—but a lot of times, it’s the face. It’s hard to describe. Sometimes, I see something in a photo and think, that’d be really interesting to draw. What would that mean if I drew that, and how would it take on a different sort of identity or form if I took these things out of context and recreated it in this way? A lot of my work is decontextualized—there’s no background because there’s enough information on the face as it is. I don’t need to give it some fields of glory and Tuscan villas.
You work primarily with pen and ink—are you thinking of incorporating any other tools?
Yeah. I have acrylic ink underneath, markers, ink wash, and I work with a variety of surfaces. It’s all white background when you see it digitally, but the actual surface could be a really glossy board or a really toothy paper and that literally looks completely different in person than when it's scanned and put online. The surface is very important because the tactility of the work is really, really interesting. The geography to me is the story, and when you create something that’s very sort of striated, and heavily layered and textured, that to me is like a story. You read that story through those lines—the surface of that is also equally important. If you have a very rough textured paper, that adds to the story of the face. I hope I don’t do pen ink the rest of my life. I’m sure that’ll probably destroy me in a few years.
You give the viewer access to your work on your site. Why?
One of the reasons I wanted to start the blog is because I wanted to show people the process of the work and also how boring it is. When I started the blog in 2009 there was this sort of myth around artists. Being an artist is not that grand. It’s you, alone in a studio, drawing or painting, and it is very tedious and repetitive. Sometimes you’ll go over things and it won’t look like change, but it is a huge change for you, so I would always update those things on my page. It is a very long process. But that’s why you do it—you do it because you love it.
Do you think people have more of an appreciation for the process since they can see it on your blog?
Yeah. The demystifying aspect of it, I think, really attracts people, ’cause it’s just very barebones. And I tell them each stage, or I play coy. For the most part, I think people appreciate something that's straightforward. I think for some artists it’s better economically for them not to talk about their process, and that’s fine—that’s their business.
I was talking to someone in grad school and they were like, I would never post my process, someone might steal it.
I don’t know if I decided to take my ballpoint and draw something if that’d work out.
If someone happens to steal my process, good for them, 'cause it’s extremely tedious. If they can do it, I will personally come up to them and hug them and say, “You too, you too—great!” But I like the blog format because it also allows me to backtrack. I can go back and see things from a piece I did a month ago. How did I work that part out? How did I do that? You know, it actually helps me work with future work, so it serves both ways.
Who are some of your favorite artists?
Oh god! How much time do you have? I loveLucien Freud, almost obsessively. I cannot not say Kara Walker, because then I’d be doing a disservice to all black women artists—everywhere. Kerry James Marshall, of course. Gosh! There are a butt-load of Chinese artists, but I can’t remember their names right now. At. All. It’s a shame, 'cause they’re really good. Korehiko Hino, he’s a Japanese painter—really great painter. A lot of Japanese manga, which people would never think, but I love Japanese manga. I’ve read it since I was in grade school, and a lot of my style came from it. Uh, I should give cool answers, shouldn’t I?
No. You don’t want it to be a typical list, you want people to go and look it up. You got Kara Walker in there.
Yea, I got the prerequisites down. But yeah, it’s a variety.
Why the Chinese artists?
One of the things that’s happening now is there are a lot of Chinese artists in blogs and art magazines. And so you read them, and you say, “Wow, that’s visually striking, and it’s so different aesthetically from anything I’ve seen before.” A lot of that work is coming from a different historical perspective, so a lot of what they’re painting, and colors they’re using, and the styles are just a different reference from what a Western-influenced artist has. It’s very inspiring to me because it says I can break the rules and still be aesthetically pleasing.
I really believe formally in work. I think sometimes there’s a lot about the message and not about how formal it is, and beauty—if you dare say the word—they’re very beautiful works. A lot of these Chinese painters and draftsmen and printmakers make just really powerful stuff—very detailed. For me, if you put a lot of detail and a lot of time into the work, it’s a gift to the viewer: I’m gorging on this—it’s so beautiful and luscious! That’s sort of what I’m really interested in—opulence and aesthetic.
China is a ways away—you’re in Alabama right now. What’s the art scene like there?
It’s very crafty. It’s interesting. I’m actually right next to a collective called Lowe Mill, and they own studios that you rent out, and they’re pretty nice. There are a lot of people here that have gallery representation in New York. It’s super-cheap to live here, and you just go to New York when you have to work—that’s your job. I’ve always thought I was going to move to New York at some point—it’s like what you do. But right now, with student loans and everything, it’s not really feasible—the dream is not practical.
There are a lot of group shows all over the States. They’re all kind of happening. It’s exciting. I’m kind of shocked that people want me in their museums and galleries. I always look at my work and think, this is so weird—people are gonna think my drawings are aliens. My brother always walks in and says, “Why do you draw me so weird?” Sorry, it’s kind of what I like.
8th: Fast Forward
by MICHAEL SLENSKE
Issue: November 2012
When Studio Museum director Thelma Golden curated ‘Freestyle’—the Harlem institution’s seminal 2001 group show that boosted the careers of Julie Mehretu, Kori Newkirk, and 26 other artists of African descent—she never assumed it would spawn three follow-up exhibitions. First came 2005-2006’s ‘Frequency,’ followed by 2008’s ‘Flow,’ and, opening November 8 (through March 10, 2013), ‘Fore,’ the latest iteration of the museum’s now popular ‘F’ series, a kind of art world field report. ‘Fore’ presents the works of 29 up-and-coming African-American artists—from the mixed-media combines of Brooklyn’s Cullen Washington Jr. to San Francisco artist Toyin Odutola’s brilliant pen and ink portraits (Narcissister’s Cigarette Secretary, 2009, is at left). ‘We were seeing things all over that made us feel like, Hmm, there’s a moment here, and let’s see what that might mean,’ recalls Golden, who foresees a 5.0 show but notes, ‘It will not, perhaps, be titled with the letter F.’
25 Awesome Contemporary Portrait Artists
by EMILY LEISZ CARR
4 October 2012
“Hailing from Alabama by way of Nigeria, Toyin Odutola. The faces are densely shaded, almost completely black, but resist becoming pure shadow with flecks of bright color and sparkling eyes. The openings in the black ink are also what distinguish the face and allow us to see it as a specific portrait rather than a silhouetted type.”
#Hashtags: Rejecting a Binary Argument with Toyin Odutola
by BEAN GILSDORF
Published: 21 September 2012
Back in early March 2012, I reviewed Mark Bradford’s solo show at SFMOMA and learned shortly thereafter that the oft-repeated narrative about the circumstances of his early work—that he grew up in poverty in a depressed African-American neighborhood of Los Angeles—was simply not true (he was raised in Santa Monica, an affluent suburb). Given that I’ve heard this myth repeated even by knowledgeable curators, I shared my concerns with artist Toyin Odutola and was surprised to learn that even though she is in the early stages of her career, she is already encountering similar circumstances. Creating the narrative around art, framing its situation and contingencies, is always a tricky endeavor, but perhaps more so when the artist is of color and the myth-makers are white. I set out to talk with Odutola in more depth about her own work and process, and the way in which an artist—especially a successful artist of color—may or may not be able to control the story of her own work. In addition to being talented and modest (always a winning combination), Odutola is an articulate and energetic speaker. What follows is part of our conversation from mid-July.
Bean Gilsdorf: Let’s begin with the question that’s usually asked last in interviews: what are you doing next? You’re going to Japan?
Toyin Odutola: Yes. Japan is a graduation present to myself, I really want to be in the place where it all started for me. I come from a comic-book background, from manga. In Japan I’m going to visit museums, get some Japanese papers and pens… Then when I get back, I’m going to a printmaking residency at the Tamarind Institute in August, which is really exciting. And I’m going to have a solo show at my gallery in April next year. Now the pressure’s on, because the first show was a tester and this is the real thing.
BG: Do you think Japan is going to have an influence on your work? Will it change what you’re working on for the show?
TO: I find myself returning to manga a lot lately and just noticing more aesthetic cues. I’m planning to go to cartoon museums in Tokyo, I really just want to be exposed to as much as possible. And I also really want to look at surface. One of the issues I’ve been having—and I think this would help with my show—is finding a really nice paper.
BG: I’m intrigued by the thought of you working at a printmaking residency, because the new pieces, the black-on-black drawings, look at lot like etching plates…
TO: Yeah, those are my way of saying, Toyin, I think it’s time to make some prints, and at Tamarind I can work with master printers who can show me how to do that properly. But the black-on-black pieces are still…tentative, just kind of not there yet. And a lot of that has to do with the ink and the paper, issues that can be resolved in making a print.
BG: It’s funny, you were working in black and white, then a jump into color for a little while, and then there was a dramatic shift into the black-on-black works.
TO: The reason I moved away from color is that I don’t have any concept of color whatsoever; it’s just lost on me. When I use color it’s not like painting where it’s part of the process, but it’s more like I lay it on, let it dry, and then the pen does all the work. That’s not really a proper way to go about making an artwork. There’s been a lot of interest in the color drawings, but I don’t feel like I have a handle on it. Now that I have time to think about it, I can see there there’s work that needs to be done.
BG: Now that you’re done with the MFA you can step away from it for a while.
TO: Yes, and I am going to go back to it eventually. But for this show, I know I’d like to do something similar to the black-on-black work. I’m taking my camera with me to Japan to take photos of Japanese people and draw them…and of course I’m thinking about what that means.
BG: That’s going to be a big shift, too.
TO: Completely. There have been a lot of write-ups of my work—I’ve been really fortunate—but it’s likeblack artist, black, black, but really, what is a black portrait? It can be anything. People allocate me to this “African-American Woman Artist” category, which is fine, that’s what I am, whatever—but it doesn’t mean that my subjects are that. So to do something with Japanese people would be fun, to play with the idea of the black portrait. What makes a black portrait? Are they black portraits because I’m black and I’m making these, or because they are the color black? I’m playing with the concept of blackness and what that means.
BG: I love the idea of exploring blackness culturally and conceptually. When the Mark Bradford show was at SFMOMA you and I talked about cultural expectations and the biographical narrative of an artist of color, and of course I’ve been thinking a lot about your work and the narrative that’s becoming linked to your work. I know you’ve questioned some of the interactions you’ve had…
TO: Sometimes I wonder why the artist has to be such a factor in the work. Obviously, context is import and it can be important to know about the artist’s life, to know what went into the work, what made the portrait in terms of what surrounded it. But these days we’re so obsessed with branding and it becomes less about the work itself and more about the branding of the artist without regard to the work standing on its own. I’ve had moments when people come up to me and they have this idea of who I am, and they’re like, “Yes, you’re from Africa! And you came to America! And you’re making these works that are so African!” And then they find out that I was raised in America, in the middle-class South, and they’re completely turned off by that and it’s disturbing. Recently I talked to LaToya Ruby Frazier and she said, “What image do you want to project about your work and about yourself? Because you’re going to lose control of that immediately if you don’t control it right now.” Like Mark Bradford, it’s going to be made into this myth.
BG: I’m interested in how you think the dialogue can be controlled. Like the artwork itself, once it leaves your studio it’s open to interpretation. So how do you take control?
TO: You really can’t. It’s all about who deems your work worthy of being talked about and what they find interesting. I do feel like I belong to the contemporary Nigerian landscape, I’m very proud of that and I’m not trying to sever that. I also feel that I’m very American, African-American. This is going to sound mad naïve, but when I see work by Elizabeth Payton or Lucian Freud, I think why can’t I just do that, where it’s about the drawing and the surface and the materials? Conceptually, that’s more interesting to me. It’s fair to say that I’m interested in blackness through portraits, but not necessarily of black people. I’m exploring the platform and what it can do.
BG: Working with the idea of representation and the portrait…
TO: I’ve been struggling with this for a while. I’m not interested in a binary argument, the black person in a white world, I’m not taking on that burden. The most interesting thing about race, to me, is how we feel we represent ourselves and why we have so many issues with representing darkness. It’s made me really delve into making the figures darker with less contrast, to see how much I can obscure the black body and make it as dark as possible, and what does that even mean? As I work I question the process:Do you have to be black to make black art? Do I have to be a black person drawing black people, can I draw white people?
BG: But the work has been really successful. You’ve had a sold-out show in Chelsea, you were given a solid shout-out in Artforum, you’ve been doing interviews, group shows, collectors lining up, am I right?
TO: Yeah, but nothing’s ever certain.
BG: That’s very humble.
TO: The one thing that I wonder about people who are successful, is when does that ever stop? Do you ever stop get to stop thinking okay, where is my career going next, how am I controlling my image, is my gallerist working for me? There is no pinnacle of success anymore because there are so many ways to be “successful.”
BG: That’s true. There’s not one single path.
TO: Yeah, it’s definitely broadened, especially with the Internet. Every time I think about success I think about that thing Neil Gaiman said, something like, “It’s so fucking weird because you become successful not knowing why you’re successful, you don’t really know what it is because you’ve been doing the same shit all the time.” I was really glad that I just did what I wanted in school, but now that I’m out there’s all this pressure. It’s been scary because I get an idea and think, this might be cool or it might fail spectacularly. But, honestly, the daily story of my working life is not that interesting. It’s really not that grand at all.
BG: I think the issues you’ve been struggling with are pretty intriguing. The dilemma of identity and how to control your biographical narrative, and the concepts of representation and race are pretty closely linked. And I think it’s important to know that what looks like unadulterated success from the outside is still, on the inside, a journey of experimentation and wrestling with ideas.
TO: One thing that has been problematic for me especially is drawing the black female body. It’s so contentious, so loaded a territory to explore. So I’ve been working on the black male nude, and I showed my first portrait to a friend, and he said, “The first thing I think about is slaves. I know you didn’t think this at all, but that’s how it looks to me.” So I’ve been really having a problem with portraying the nude body. I say “nude,” but I should clarify that here’s a difference between a nude, which is a spectacle, and a naked body, which is things as they are. I should say “naked.” Naked is something I’m very interested in, it someone as they are, there’s no clothing to indicate a time, no trinkets or tropes, it’s just the person. Because it’s so bare, it’s open and vulnerable…but it also has an inner strength.
Tamarind Institute hosts AFRO: Black Identity in America and Brazil
During the summer of 2012, Tamarind Institute (http://tamarind.unm.edu) hosted three Afro-Brazilian and three African American artists. The artists worked in binational pairs to create original lithographs investigating cross-cultural issues such as equality, inclusion, and identity.
by JASON JUDD
Issue 5: "Drifting"
Toyin Odutola's artistic practice centers on portraits made with pen and ink on paper. This beautiful and insightful artwork explores issues of identity and race by experimenting with the representation of the skin as an ever-evolving terrain. The Nigerian-born, American artist and Jason Judd discuss a number of concepts integral to Odutola's work: blackness, identity and the gaze.
Toyin, what kind of work lead up to your most recent pieces with ballpoint pen?
TOYIN: The works I'm exploring now are the result of tentatively branching out to create more depth with the pen ink medium while expanding the chromatic palette available underneath. I wanted to answer a question that had been nagging me as of late on how to reveal all the “possibilities” of black as a material and a concept. This idea that, in describing the components of “white,” similarly black is made up of a variety of colors, but is often not seen as displaying them. It is something to do with what it is inherently capable of projecting and absorbing. I wanted to call into question this application and try to present a scheme of colors that would refute this notion of what black as a property can embody, and in so doing, extend that method to how we read individuals presented in portraits.
You speak of skin texture as an exploration. The skin in your drawings are relentlessly rendered, leaving an untouched brilliant white background in contrast. Is the white background acting as a sort of void—of your hand, of content, perhaps the antithesis of the figure?
TOYIN: I have worked mainly with white surfaces, but recently have worked with black and gray surface grounds. The white background is not meant to initiate a binary argument. Aesthetically, I am interested in the stark background in contrast to the rendered skin, for the simple reason that it provides minimal distraction from the subject. This travels further to the skin itself, where I rarely draw the subjects wearing any clothing. Sometimes, they do don earrings and other various piercings, but there aren't any clothes nor additional accessory markers to reveal much about where they come from or whether they are representing a very specific time. It may sound romantic (or blindly naïve), but I hope the lack of social markers and tropes associated with clothing help to reveal a timelessness and wanderlust-like quality; but all of this is neither here no there. I guess one could say that the background is inevitably the absence of my hand. I go through much pains to remove any distracting marks if they are to happen upon that part of the surface. I'm not sure if the word “antithesis” is what I am trying to achieve with it. If anything, it's the negative space that envelopes the figure and contributes to the overall composition. The figures are what I like to call “the positive” mark embossed onto this negative space; however, it's not meant to be contentious, it's very basic, a factual part of my process.
The gazes of the figures deal directly with the viewer. Is there a power struggle there?
TOYIN: There are three modes: one, of being looked at and not being aware of it; two, being looked at and being aware of it, yet not wanting the looker to know that you are aware; and finally, being looked at and directly looking back. Generally, the subjects I portray actively partake in the third mode, directly looking back as if to say: “Yes, I see you, but do you see me?” It's a very austere way of demanding to be acknowledged and owning one's presence.
Growing up, I was terrified of being stared at and always assumed that it was for the wrong reason. Yet, contradictory to this fear, I desperately wanted to be known for who and what I was, what I was capable of, and was wary of constantly being mistaken for or misunderstood.
The act of looking with equal directness as those looking at you is the demand to be seen, which does address a power play more than a struggle. I shy away from the word “struggle” because it may connote the notion of an established order. I like to think that the portraits I create are in a world all their own. The viewer approaches them, and I want him/her to address the subject, so I present the subject in a forthright way to encourage a dialogue.
Could you talk about the tension that exists between the figure’s rendered skin, meant to be explored, and the piercing eyes? Are the eyes watching, or daring the viewer as they explore the skin?
TOYIN: The rendering style of the skin began as a way for me to express what I felt as a dark-skinned, black woman. I wanted to put it down, draw it out, and see it for myself and not have the idea of it seen from the perspective of having eyes on me or descriptive (even, derogatory) words thrown at me. In high school, I went through that depressing phase where my skin was my enemy and it felt like a hinderance; I felt as if it always spoke for me and I was limited in my actions because of it. I wanted to eradicate it, to strip from it and start anew, because it always felt like it had so much more history and content within each pore that was more than I could ever carry on or tackle by myself everyday.
Thankfully, I got over that and began to analyze why I felt that way. I started looking at definitions of “darkness” and “blackness” in the Western canon. I tried to examine my own personal history and how I came to loathe my own image in all its manifestations—whether those representations and iterations were considered good or bad—everything. Eventually, what I found was that I had a seriously warped way of seeing myself and processing how certain ideas of my identity were projected onto me by individuals and by society at large.
When I am drawing the skin this way, what I am doing is taking the flatness out, eliminating the one-dimensional view I felt about my skin and my identity when I was young. The style began as a sort of love letter to myself. Showing that I was multidimensional and my skin was the gateway not the obstruction. I could render it ever iridescent from all sides while keeping it collectively dark. I wanted to show contradiction in what this skin meant and how problematic it is to ascribe a group of people to an image that was so stifling.
In a sense, there is a tension between the skin and the gaze. The skin is the gateway, as aforementioned, to the expansion of the possibilities of blackness, of darkness, beyond that immobility of what such descriptives mean when applied to an individual. The skin is all about the subject. The gaze, on the other hand, directly addresses the the viewer. It takes all that possibility, all that history, all that wonder and all those realities, and projects it outward, reveals it for all to see. With this gaze topping it off to the viewer, as if to say, again: “Do you see me now? I am all these things, these people and places and more. And so are you.”
I am in a way “daring” the viewer to see these subjects, but really, I am daring him/her to see the possibilities of these subjects as they exist in the world and as the viewer, himself/herself exists. I think the subjects are always watching the viewer for they are striking the conversation.
For these to be a sort of personal exploration they engage the audience in a very direct way. How much does your work depend on the viewer projecting onto your piece?
TOYIN: I like to play with perception. I would be lying if I didn't admit to implanting my own ideas or feelings into the portraits I draw. I want to be direct, yes, I want to engage with the viewer, to have him/her see beyond the silhouette of a figure with those intense stares and various tonal gradations, and attempt to see themselves. In a sense, I am trying to create portraits as mirrors. I have my own projections when I am working—which is inevitable—but I am also very much interested in what the viewer projects, what he/she may bring to the portrait from their own experiences. I am interested in the dialogue. It doesn't matter whether I agree or disagree with the assessment each portrait may get. The truth of the matter boils down to whether these portraits are engaging you and if they are and you ponder, even for a moment what they may mean to you, then I feel I have succeeded.
Could you expand on your exploration of blackness? Do you engage with your work through personal identity alone or are there any political considerations--if so, do you believe some form of politics are inherent in exploring identity?
TOYIN: I will start with the last of the questions. I firmly believe that making “political art” is something every artist does. Regardless of whether you are a Nigerian, a woman, of a certain socio-economic experience and so on. The fact that you as an artist chose to make this work in the time and place you exist is a political statement by itself, because it demands that you be acknowledged and your way of seeing the world is valid and worthy of being tagged in the grand canon of the “art historical record.” So when I hear artists saying that what he/she is making is not meant to be inherently political, I get very confused, because I don't understand which point of view he/she is coming from. I suspect that a lot of this has to do with the contemporary and historical definitions and connotations associated with the labels “political” and the tag of “identity art.”
By calling my work “identity art,” I am not trying to disassociate people or exclude (or even blame) anyone. What I am trying to do is reveal the nuance with my own visual language. I am not doing it simply to target or say, “I am a Black woman and if you aren't black and a woman you will never understand what I am going through nor will you appreciate this work.” What I am doing with my portraits is revealing the lie of division. I am trying to show how my way of seeing and experiencing the world is valid equally as your way of seeing and experiencing the world is valid. I am trying to reveal that having a self portrait of my self can express feelings that are universal. This is political because it demands that we remove the filtered visual lenses that separate us from actually seeing each other for who and what we are, not what or who we perform to be or are relegated into being.
You are very open about your studio practice, your success, and your experience as an artist. You keep a very candid blog about all of this. Why is being open about your studio practice and experiences important to you?
TOYIN: When I was in high school and the possibility, even the very idea, of being an artist came into my purview, I was voracious for knowledge regarding artistic methodology, material exploration, issues with consistency and business entrepreneurship. I figured, if one is serious about becoming an artist, one should do as much research as possible; looking up artists I admired, I often found that their was plenty of theoretical writing and some slight revelations in regards to process, but nothing as candid and willingly forthright as I desired. I needed a more intimate look into the artist's studio. In the age of blogging, I found more insights. With contemporary artists like James Jean as early inspirations, I could watch pieces unfold and gain insider info on artistic processes, including the frustrations, triumphs and fears that come with production. I loved the idea of an artist journal and decided around 2009 to begin a public journal of my own chronicling my artist explorations.
At first, it was simply a means of cataloging my process, primarily for myself to refer to when I needed to retrace my steps or explain/elaborate on my process for an essay or critique. From there I expanded the journaling to include material insights, travels, changes in my career, etc. With time, I was fortunate to gain a following and soon I was able to interact with other creatives around the world. Eventually, my blog became a means of dialogue, a continued discussion that I had yearned for all those years. I found that nothing was off limits: I could open up my studio doors, so to speak, and reveal every aspect of my process (as well as for my developing methodology) for those who were willing to follow along and contribute their own ideas.
Having this format of a blog is essential, I think. I keep the 16 year old girl I was in my mind when I journal. It's for her, really. All those questions she would ask, all that information she sought to obtain; I'm always thinking of that. It's important for me to have a place where people can see what it's like to be a working artist in some form. There's a lot of smoke and mirrors, a lot of mystery and drama in popular culture, that surrounds the artist's identity, especially in America, I think. I want people to understand that I'm not some gifted individual who was just “born to be an artist.” It's a daily activity. It's a job. I have to commit to it. I have to work at it. Sometimes something works, sometimes it doesn't. It's all a part of what I do.
I’d like to thank you for your time, Toyin. Do you have any wise words for young artists that you have discovered yourself?
TOYIN: Thank you kindly for the consideration! I suppose if I could give any sort of advice that could be of use it would be this: if you are serious about artmaking, you have to stay committed. You have to keep working. The more you keep making, whether the works end up the way you would like or not, all your doubts and fears will be revealed in the process of making. You cannot answer any questions you may have by quitting early or abandoning a painting or sculpture (or refusing to begin one at all). It's very hard to keep at it. I know I have problems with this myself; however, it is the only way to progress forward and gain any kind of certainty about yourself and your work. At least, that's how it has been for me, so far, anyway. And, of course, all the best of luck!
IRAAA: The International Review of African American Art
"A Special Issue on Collecting."
Hampton University Press
Vol. 24, No. 1
Pictured: Patton, Sharon F. "Expanding the Aesthetic Horizon." The International Review of African American Art (IRAAA). Volume 24, No. 1. Hampton University Museum (2012): 44, illustrated.
PDF copy of articles can be found here.
IRAAA: The International Review of African American Art
Lane, Nancy L. "Lasting Impressions: How, What and Why Great Collectors...Collect And How They Give Back." The International Review of African American Art (IRAAA). Volume 24, No. 1. Hampton University Museum (2012): 10, illustrated.
From the desk of... Toyin Odutola
by KATE DONNELLY
29 May 2012
“These photos capture two studios I worked in while I studied at the California College for the Arts for my MFA. They are located in San Francisco, CA. I spend a great deal of time in my studio, so they’ve both been like homes to me. There are pictures of my archive walls and details of works in progress.”
Toyin Odutola was born in Ife, Nigeria and was largely raised in Alabama. She received her MFA at the California College of the Arts in Painting and Drawing. Her work often centers around the possibility that an individual’s subjectivity, various realities and experiences can literally be drawn onto the diverse terrain of one’s skin. Odutola’s first solo exhibition, “(MAPS),” debuted in 2011 at the Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
FROM YOUR DESKS: How do you work?
TOYIN ODUTOLA: On my desk or sitting on my small couch with a lapdesk, drawing. I have my selection of pens lined up and close, ready for grabbing, and my papers close by in case the drawing at hand goes awry. I like to work with my laptop close: playing music, listening to an audiobook or podcast, or watching some random film. It’s a pretty basic set up that I like to keep neat and tidy, to minimize any visible distractions.
FYD: What is your favorite sentimental object at your workspace and why?
TO: It’s a tie between photographs of my family lying around or pinned up, and my books. The photos to remind me of where I come from and to remind me of my humility. Visual artists are inspired by other visuals, no? The more I’ve traveled, the more I’ve come to realize how essential these objects are to my creative “energy” and calm.
FYD: What is your favorite or most required work tool?
TO: My ballpoint pen collection. I use a variety of pens purchased from a variety of places. I enjoy how accessible and readily available pens are and what I can do with their seemingly rudimentary nature. The more ubiquitous they are, the more I feel compelled to twist the notion of what it is they are capable of.
FYD: How did you grow up?
TO: I grew up with a hardworking, Nigerian immigrant family mainly in southern region of the United States. We traveled a great deal while I was young, so I picked up drawing to provide a mental space for stillness in an otherwise restless situation. It’s strange to think of drawing as a solidifying element in one’s life, especially of flimsy pencil drawings, but it felt great to take a nebulous, seemingly mercurial idea in my head and “cement” it onto an object to exist in the world. That sort of need was essential to me during my formative years. They made me feel like I was worth something, that my ideas and my stories were worth talking about and included in the world.
FYD: What do you love about the human face?
TO: There’s this quote I stumbled upon recently that says it best. It’s from this film titled The Yellow Handkerchief (2010): “Your whole life is in your face. And I love that face.” I think it embodies perfectly how I feel about portraiture. There is a language to the face, a narrative that words can’t really express but color, light/shade, texture and other forms can. I love the act of looking at a face and finding the marks of time there. We live in an age where we are pressured to hide our blemishes and the traces that life may leave to mark on our dermis, why? It’s the most beautiful thing to see: the scarification of events written all over you, creating a language of which we can read from and learn from?
FYD: What do you see in the face?
TO: When I look at a face–any face–I see the beauty in the crow’s feet, the laugh lines, the scars…I find them intriguing for they add another dimension to how we see one another, and I want to learn more. There is a surface fragmentation that happens in the way I mark up the face, but the idea is to break down the barriers of what we think the face–and the person–truly is, to get at something more.
FYD: Are eyes the gateway to the soul?
TO: Or more like a door to another reality. I don’t know much about the “soul,” but I do know that eyes give perspective. When I focus on the eyes in a portrait, I am trying to capture a reality, even if that reality only exists for that moment, even if I don’t quite understand that reality myself. People latch onto eyes for familiarity, but they can also be that moment in the portrait that is the most “foreign” to them. There is interest because the possibilities of understanding what lies behind the eyes are limitless, and thus the read of a subject can be limitless as well.
FYD: Artists are inspired by other artists. Who influences you?
TO: Lately it has been Lucian Freud’s early and mid-career portraits. Paintings by Kerry James Marshall and Francis Bacon, are a constant. And the powerful prints ad sculptures of Elizabeth Catlett. Surprisingly, I have also returned to my first love, comic books. I was a HUGE Japanese manga fan in middle school and high school and, in returning to this love, I’m finding some refreshing and inspiring ideas from old favorites by the likes of Takehiko Inoue, CLAMP, Katsuhiro Otomo, and Moebius, to name a few.
FYD: What authors or writers do you connect with?
TO: I really love James Baldwin’s works and the writings of Zadie Smith. I have been listening to some audiobooks of Toni Morrison while I’m drawing; they have offered me insight and inspiration for what I have been embarking on with a series of “Black on Black” drawings. I also love the sharp wit and insight of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
FYD: Your blog props Ricky Gervais’ “Life’s Too Short To Go With The Flow.” How do you mix it up?
TO: I liked Gervais’ article because I related to this notion of passion and what it means to be fully dedicated to an idea. I don’t think it necessarily means mixing things up, but it does remind us that we all are susceptible to change and contradiction. You have to be open to being proven wrong, which is really hard to do. I try my best to be open, but there are times where pride and the sudden need for self preservation comes in. However, I know that there will come a moment when I cannot stand being what I am now or maybe working with pens will be the death of me at some point and I’ll have to move on. I have to be able to acknowledge it when it comes, yet never lose my passion for working hard and believing in what I do. It’s all I have and will ever have to get me up and going in the morning.
FYD: What are you working on next?
TO: I’ve been really fortunate to be included in some group shows coming this fall and another solo show next year, so it’s helped me experiment with some ideas I’ve had floating around but never quite tackled while in graduate school. Since I graduate this May, I plan on taking some time to focus on a new series titled “Come Closer: Black Surfaces. Black Grounds.” which plays with this notion of “The Black Portrait” that has been nagging my brain for about a year or so.
by HANK WILLIS THOMAS
Issue: April 2012
1: TOYIN ODUTOLA
Born in Nigeria and raised in Alabama, Odutola now lives in San Francisco, where she is completing her MFA at California College of the Arts. She will tell you that skin has geography, and it is this territory that she explores through portraiture. Rendered in ballpoint pen, her subjects are obsessive and intricate. Every stroke is drawn with care--thousands and thousands of the lines create the almost completely saturated bodies of her stark figures.
Toyin Odutola: Pen Pals
by REBECCA SPENCE
Published: March 2012
Toyin Odutola was in her first year of the MFA program at the California College of the Arts when alumnus Hank Willis Thomas—an artist whose work she so admired that it had influenced her choice of graduate school—came to deliver a lecture. When Odutola wasn't selected for a studio visit with Thomas, the Nigerian-born artist made a personal appeal. "After his talk, I introduced myself and said, 'Hey, I love your work and if you have a chance, maybe I could show you mine.' He literally looked at me and said, 'No.'"
But shortly thereafter, Odutola, now 26, learned that the visiting artist had stopped by her studio. As Thomas tells it, he felt guilty that he'd denied her request and looked around her studio when she wasn't there. Taken with her painstakingly detailed ballpoint-pen portraits of African American subjects, Thomas sent images of her drawings to his gallerist, Jack Shainmain. Last spring, Odutola had her first solo show at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. "Every time I see Hank, I tell him I own him my first born," she says. Her works now sell for between $3,200 and $12,000.
Odutola moved to Northern California form Nigeria at the age of five, and later relocated to Alabama when her father, a chemist, took a job there. Feeling isolated in her new environment, Odutola began to draw more frequently. She went on to study art at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, where the foundations of her labor-intensive style emerged. Odutola starts with a rough sketch on board or paper, adding acrylic ink or marker, then builds up the drawing with layer upon layer of ballpoint pen. The result is a richly textured portrait set against a stark white background. "The pen and ink is like a container that reveals and also hides," says the artist, who usually depicts friends and family. "The more information I give in terms of mark-making or texture, the more the person's state of mind is revealed."
A fan of storytelling—Odutola counts the writer Zadie Smith among her influences—she has begun to explore narrative in multipanel works. In a diptych titled Default Position (Study), 2011, a young shirtless man hunches over, staring meekly off in the distance in one panel. In the other, he sits upright, directly addressing the viewer. Odutola is also experimenting with larger formats. Glancing over at a 20-by-30-inch portrait-in-progress of her brother, she says, half-jokingly, "This one's going to kill me."
It started with a ballpoint pen
by SARAH CURE
The Huntsville Times
Published: Tuesday, 05 June
HUNTSVILLE, Alabama -- It began with a ballpoint pen, a mild obsession with a character from "The Lion King" and a desire for unconventional portraits.
Nigerian-born Toyin Odutola, a former student at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, never believed those three factors would be the prelude to a successful career as an artist. At 26, the humble artist is recognized both nationally and internationally for her exquisite take on portraits using generic ink pens, with collections on exhibit at places that include The National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution and The Honolulu Museum of Art.
She's now represented by a New York City group, The Jack Shainman Gallery, and has been featured in The New York Times, Vogue Italia and Artforum International magazine, among others. Odutola credits her beginnings at UAH, where professors nurtured artistic freedom.
"I say it all the time ... being at UAH was such a blessing," said Odutola, who moved to Alabama with her family when she was 9. "The art department there was a family, and it was a great place to test different things. "You could fail, and it was OK," she said. "It was about figuring out what we like and not to impress anyone, and I miss that a lot. At UAH we were taught to love the work."
After graduating with a bachelor's degree in studio art and communications in 2008, Odutola did what most college grads do - started job hunting. For about two years, Odutola bounced around from job to job. During that time, Odutola's desire to draw began to waver.
"Around 2009, when I got fired from this law firm job, I got back into drawing, but I hadn't worked on paper in years," she said. "I was only going to use pen ink, and that's when my style really cemented in form." On a whim, Odutola applied to graduate school in 2010 at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco for her masters of fine art. The school offered her a full scholarship, which Odutola took as affirmation that her life was on the right course. "I had to go," she said. "And like they say, the rest is history." Along with the scholarship, Odutola was attracted to the school because it is the alma mater of mixed-media artist and photographer Hank Willis Thomas.
Thomas was visiting the school in the fall of 2010 for a lecture. While he was there, students were allowed to register for a meet-and-greet where Thomas would critique their work. Only so many visits could be scheduled, and Odutola didn't make the list.
"After the lecture, I went over to him and asked if (he) could see my work," she said. "He looked at me in the face and said 'No.' "It was like a stab in the gut," she said.
Odutola later received an email from Thomas, "because he felt bad," about the snub, and he ended up visiting her studio. Within a week, Odutola got a call from the Jack Shainman Gallery asking for a collection of her work for a show. A few months later in New York City, her art - consisting mostly of self portraits - sold out before the show opened.
"It was really surreal," said Odutola, who graduated in May with her masters of fine art and plans to move back to Huntsville to prepare for three upcoming shows. "It was a weird 180-degree turn from exactly a year at that moment."
When she was just 9, Odutola recalls challenging herself, repeatedly drawing the meerkat, Timon, from "The Lion King," working to capture the image accurately.
Later in life she was inspired by portrait painter John Singer Sargent. Today Odutola's portraits employ a variety of thick, sturdy paper to withstand the engraving of her pen as she creates a dimensional element to a person's skin with texture, color, light or shade.
And the pens she uses aren't considered "high-end." "It's the pens you find at Office Depot, Walmart, or the doctor's office, which are the best ones," she jokes. "Pen ink is the most prominent feature in my work."
UAHuntsville alumna rising star in national, international art world
by JOYCE ANDERSON MAPLES
UAHuntsville Alumni News
Published: April 2012
HUNTSVILLE, Ala. —Most artists wait a lifetime for fame and recognition, but Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Odutola has quickly made a name for herself nationally and internationally since graduating from The University of Alabama in Huntsville in 2008.
Toyin (B.A. studio art and communications) is best known for creating highly detailed portrait drawings in pen ink. Her public collections are held in several prestigious art museums including The National Museum of African Art (Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.), The Honolulu Museum of Art, The Birmingham Museum of Art and the San Francisco Foundation 2011 Murphy and Cadogan Fellowship Awards Exhibition SOMArts Cultural Center. The Jack Shainman Gallery in New York represents the art world’s rising star. It was Toyin’s obsession with the perfect likeness of Timon, the meerkat (portrayed by comedic actor Nathan Lane) from Disney’s The Lion King that sparked the flame for her love of art. Born in Ife, Nigeria, Toyin was nine when her family moved to Alabama.
“I was five when we came to the United States of America. When we first moved here my first thoughts as a child were to be as reckless and open as possible,” Toyin recalled. “In Ife, I remember living in a small college subdivision where some of my cousins also lived. We had a well where we would sometimes gather water. I remember there were tall leaves. There was also brilliant sunlight…. lots of greenery and foliage, and mountains. I ran around like a crazed lunatic in pure happiness a lot. I believe that all changed once we moved to Alabama.
“For some reason the move to Alabama was rather traumatic for me,” she said. “I think it was because to move so many times at a young age felt unstable and life became slightly more unpredictable. Suddenly, I was weary of having to constantly uproot myself and depend on my environs for validation or worth.”
“The drawings of Timon were an intimate and strange sort of meditation for an otherwise very restless child,” she said. “They allowed me me to center my thoughts and focus intently on something personal …. albeit silly at the time, but that sort of searching for definition, trying to accurately capture a portrait in a moment, that never left me.”
Under the tutelage of Dana Bathurst, a Catholic High School art teacher, Toyin perfected her skills, “drawing constantly.” She began to focus much of her attention on artistic pursuits beyond high school and dreamt of new possibilities for her talent. “Dana Bathurst was a fantastic teacher who transformed my idea of what being an artist meant, and she introduced me to many African American artists and writers who continue to influence me to this day.”
In 2005, Toyin transferred to UAHuntsville from another Alabama university. “Although I made friends, my experience at the other university was not pleasant. … It was often isolating. Transferring to UAHuntsville was the greatest decision I ever made and I owe it all to my parents, who upon visiting me one semester heavily suggested I withdraw. They could see in my eyes that I was not in it anymore and, what was worst, I wasn't making artwork with as much passion.
“If it wasn't for supportive UAHuntsville professors who all just wanted us to love what we did and the process first and not what was expected of us to love or do, I don't know where my head would be at this point. They implanted in me the principle that I could make my own art and that was OK,” she said.
Ironically, Toyin attributes UAHuntsville’s reputation as an engineering school, for defining and solidifying her independence as a student. “Although the College of Liberal Arts was not the singular entity of the UAHuntsville campus, we had our own space to roam … albeit small, but it was ours to make. Through that experience, I learned how important it is to ground yourself in your work and to never let outside voices get the best of you. The tools I gathered from UAHuntsville have always remained within me and I will continue to hold fast to them.”
While at UAHuntsville Toyin perfected her use of the self-portraits, methodically drawing them in detail with black, ballpoint pen. “For most of the works which composed my first solo show in New York last year, entitled “(MAPS),” I intentionally honed in on the self-portrait. A lot of it had to do with me figuring out what to do with this style, or language, of drawings I had begun in Alabama and explored while I was at UAHunstville. I knew that I liked the aesthetic, but I was lost on how this applied to what I wanted to say conceptually.
“Creating diptych drawings (a pair of pictures on two panels, hinged together) allowed me to create a narrative for myself,” she explained. “Suddenly the academic, static portraits I was doing early on for pure enjoyment as an undergrad no longer were of interest, and these self portrait diptychs took on another meaning for me as a grad student. I wanted to broaden the definition of what I was and what it meant to be Black and to be a woman now.
“Furthermore, I love employing my tool of choice: pen ink. A seemingly ubiquitous tool that is accessible to everyone and supposedly rudimentary, I am utilizing it to rewrite what the pen is capable of expressing and what I, as a artist, am capable of bringing out of it. It's all about realities and perceptions.”
Toyin’s star in the art world is rising at breakneck speed. So much so, even she admits, “I cannot comprehend it. It’s all so surreal. Seriously, I owe everything to my family and close friends, and everyone who ever believed in me and supported me.” While she is extremely “grateful” to all who have unconditionally supported her craft on a personal level. Toyin is very clear on the one person who has helped establish her professionally.
“Without question it is Hank Willis Thomas,” she said. “There is a kidney inside me that has his name tattooed on it. I'm kidding. No, I'm not. He's one of the reasons I was inspired to apply to the prestigious California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco, and he is my major connector to the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. He jokingly calls me his ‘protégé’. I reverentially refer to him as my ‘game changer’.”
Thomas is a celebrated contemporary African American visual artist and photographer whose interests include advertising, race and popular culture. His works have been exhibited in galleries and museums throughout the United States and abroad.
Recently, articles about Toyin have appeared in numerous national and international magazines including Vogue Italia, The New York Times,ARTFORUM International, ARTnews Magazine, Art Nouveau Magazine/An-Mag.com, The Examiner and Think Africa Press. For now, she is preparing for her upcoming California College of the Arts MFA Thesis Exhibition. She is scheduled to graduate from CCA in May. And, Toyin recently exhibited at The Armory Show with the Jack Shainman Gallery. The event is a leading international contemporary and modern art fair and one of the most important annual art events in New York.
For Toyin (whose full name in Yoruba means “God is worthy of praise”), life couldn’t be sweeter. She now sees joy in her mother’s eyes as she eagerly reads an article that someone has written about her work. And she hears pride and warmth emanating from her father's voice as he talks with her about a recent art show.
“I was predestined to be a lawyer in the minds of my dear Nigerian parents, but I persisted with my drawing. They supported me, but there were times when they voiced their doubts and concerns, about a child who was involved in such an enterprise, or lack thereof called ‘artmaking.’ Now that all of this is happening, they are very proud. It feels great knowing that I am carrying the Odutola name. I feel honored,” she said.
After graduating, Toyin plans to return to Huntsville for a “much needed break” and to spend time with her family and work towards forthcoming exhibitions. “Huntsville summers are considerably warmer than those in San Francisco Bay. I can’t wait to bathe in the humid heat with my much missed family and friends.”
Toyin’s father, Dr. J. Ade Odutola, is a chemistry professor at Alabama A&M University, and collaborates with NASA colleagues conducting research. Her mother, Nelene Odutola, is an RN at Huntsville Hospital for Women and Children.
A Son Returns to the Agony of Somalia
(Portrait contribution for K'NAAN article.)
"Sunday Review" of The New York Times
25 September 2011
Museum & Gallery Listings, 17 - 23 June 2011
by HOLLAND COTTER
The New York Times
Published: 16 June 2011
★ Toyin Odutola: ‘(MAPS)’ (through June 25) Using ballpoint pens and other drawing utensils, this young artist, born in Nigeria and living in San Francisco, makes a polished New York solo debut with small portraits. Each one, derived from photographs of friends but incorporating Ms. Odutola’s features, looks to have been weaved from strips of dark, ductile, sinewy material, then finished with hair-fine details. Jack Shainman Gallery, 513 West 20th Street , (212) 645-1701, jackshainman.com. (Cotter)
Between the Lines
by LARRY OSSEI-MENSAH
Toyin Odutola creates viscerally stunning, intricately detailed images that are redefining the perception of contemporary African art, how we look at the world and how we view ourselves. The Nigerian-born, American-raised artist employs a painstakingly thorough creative process that uses rudimentary tools – ballpoint pens, ink and paper – to investigate perceptions of ‘blackness’, gender and place. Seems like a handful for an artist who is just going into the second year of her Masters in Fine Arts at California College of the Arts. Already Odutola’s street buzz has caught the eye of both major collectors and celebrities, such as Solange Knowles. This spring she opened her first major solo exhibition, MAPS, at New York’s Jack Shainman gallery. As expected, it was an instant hit. Since 2004 San Francisco-based Odutola’s artistic practice has evolved from imaginary into a more sequential cinematic narrative, featuring herself as the subject. Her work, both simple and detailed at the same time, stimulates a dialogue between the artist and the viewer. And it has a rawness – in part due to the medium of ball[point] pen, part due to its microscopic imagery – that leaves the viewer in an emotional trance as they seek to decode it. What is striking about Odutola’s work is the absence of the typical cultural tropes associated with many popular contemporary African artists. “If I were too specific about my Nigerian identity, it would become this [eroticization] of Nigeria," she says. "I don’t feel like I’m an accurate participant in creating that narrative." Using her artistic platform as a conduit for women to create their own narrative, Odutola believes that, "we are active participants in decolonizing our own spaces” and her art is a catalyst that ignites fresh debate around concepts of self. Certainly at the show opening in May, there was much discussion about what her imagery represented, literally, between the lines. "In many ways, it’s an exploration of the limits and possibilities of contradiction," she told Think Africa Press. "The ability to transfer experiential geography onto a person never fails to excite me."
Sink Into the Ink
by TAMARA WARREN
LIFE + TIMES
Published: Sept. 23, 2011
TOYIN ODUTOLA makes highly detailed ballpoint pen, ink and marker drawings that accentuate the complex nature and texture of skin. “I’m interested in the skin as a narrative for people to explore,” she says. “I honestly believe skin is a geography that we explore. Each skin is different, even if it’s in the same race.”
Her intricate renderings focus predominantly on Black skin and are a meditation on the human form. Odutola draws from inspiration of portrait painters Frida Kahlo and John Singer Sargent. She captures subjects in unassuming positions and works from reference photos, narrowing in carefully on details of the flesh. “It’s a plain white surface and the black is a positive mark that I inject,” she says.
For “(Maps),” her first solo exhibition at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, she created a series of self-portraits. In an untitled work, an opaque hand rests on the crown of her head, suggesting a watchful presence that looms. “The hand represents history,” she says. More recently, she has expanded from black ballpoint ink to a larger color palette. “On a materialistic level I wanted to explore the color combinations and palettes, how color activates the pen and ink. On a more conceptual level I’m trying to be sincere about the Black image. People are multi faceted and skin can be a vehicle to access a person.”
Odutola was born in Nigeria, and moved to the U.S when she was a child. “I grew up in a family of hardworking Nigerian immigrants. I didn’t think art was a job, I thought it was a hobby. I moved geographically and economically. We were middle class and then we became lower working class.” Growing up in the South, she was constantly doodling —drawing was a way for her to capture the emotions of constant change. “I was like let me have this moment here. I decided to use that moment through the vehicle of portraiture. It evolved into this style of skinless geography.”
Her work will be featured in “After the Barbarians” along with Geoffrey Chadsey at Jack Shainman in October. She is completing an MFA at the California College of the Arts and will be exhibiting her work at Art Basel Miami Beach in December.
Toyin Odutola: Drawing as a tool for change
by YOMI ABIOLA
Published: 9 June 2011
It must be every artists dream, that whilst obsessing over a piece of work in the studio some magic is taking place in the outside world that lands you a gallerist and a sold out show in New York.
For Toyin Odutola, her dream came true, one year into graduate school at California College of the Arts the Nigerian born artist can barely contain her excitement. Between breathless giggles she describes how a coping mechanism (drawing) became a tool for change and possibly a way to put her name on the map.
"I moved around a lot when I was a child, two of the houses I grew up in have totally disappeared. One was burnt in a riot, and the other was pulled down." This sense of instability inspired the Nigerian artist to start drawing aged nine. "I needed to create something I could take with me wherever I went." What started out as little doodles have become bold expressions of work that have had an overwhelming reaction.
Odutola's gallerist Jack Shainman describes the artist's work as detailed and almost obsessive, but beyond the appearance of the work the artist is making firm declarations. Odutola says that her work is an exploration of self. " I kept wanting to push my image as validity, I wanted to see my portrait on a wall and know it was okay." Fans claim to see themselves in Odutola's work, they see a deep resemblance, and they ask the same questions the artist [asks] herself: Do you see me? and Can I just exist now? The answers lie in Odutola's work as [she] continues the quest, hunched over her canvas, pen in hand creating bodies of work that speak to the world.
Toyin's work is exhibited at the Jack Shainman Gallery until June 25th.
by ASHLEY JAMES
Studio Museum/Harlem Blog: "Artists"
Published: June 30, 2011)
Save for her eyes and their slight edges, the seated artist in Kerry James Marshall’s Untitled painting (2009) is consummately black. Her skin’s shade blends into the mass of dark hair resting atop her head as though she were dipped in night’s pigmentation, clothed, and placed on this chair. She is of a full-bodied, concentrated coloring; each inch of her skin coated in darkness.
In an interview with Kerry James Marshall for the Yale Daily News, writer Ah Joo Shin notes this propensity for black skin coloring, asking Marshall the inevitably loaded question of “what ‘black’ means to [him].” Marshall articulates this preference for black as a matter of message: “I use it because it’s the most powerful rhetorical device because it operates at the extreme,” he replies. “And since I’m trying to make images that portray the maximum amount of power that [they] can, that’s why the black is most effective…” [YDN]
Certainly for Untitled, chromatic black is power. The image points toward a conception of race as a performance with the artist presenting herself to her audience inevitably to be judged by her skin tone. Because she is especially dark skinned, her race appears not only as an unavoidable fact of her existence, but the fact of her existence. Even with the vibrant canvas behind her and a full palette in hand we remain focused on her blackness. Not yellow, red or blue, but her skin’s black is the image’s primary color.
While the bright materials in her studio are no match for the artist’s dark, these same materials reveal another facet of her identity that appears as equally important to her selfhood as her blackness is: She is undoubtedly an artist. The palette she holds is massive, nearly as large as her visible body, and this size equivalence indicates an artistic identity that is as equally important as her racial one. In her self-portrait, we see the canvas’ paint-by-numbers design abandoned in favor of her individualized pattern; she colors herself however she pleases.
But through Marshall’s use of black to color the artist’s skin, he makes an especially layered comment on racial artifice. That the artist is so especially dark exacerbates the racial undertones of the piece, but that she is so especially dark also calls attention to the fact that her skin is essentially paint, bought at an art supply store and applied by a brush. Sitting in a darkened artist’s studio particularly, her tone reminds us of the fact that black is not only a racial identification, but also a color. And a deep one in all senses of the word.
When I think of deep skin, I am reminded of Toyin Odotula’s pen drawings, portraits of black skinned individuals whose bodies appear near multidimensional through her marking technique. The skin of her individuals looks like external black sinews, maintaining a powerful presence because of this appearance of strength. Unlike Marshall, Odutola’s pen drawings are not a flat black. For Marshall, matte black—an impenetrable coloring—might signify the eternally mysterious social and aesthetic implications of blackness. But Odutola’s textured black enacts these mysteries on the very surface: the multiplicities of blackness are made literal through the intricacies of the individuals’ skin.
One of the first Studio Museum shows I saw back in 2008 was Kehinde Wiley’s The World Stage: Africa, Lagos~Dakar and I remember walking into the gallery space feeling completely floored by these grand portraits. Though richly colored, I couldn’t specify exactly what made these images so visually powerful for me. I later read an article by Roberta Smith that pointed to what I found so distinctive about these Wiley paintings—their deep attention to skin coloration. Smith writes of how “[Wiley] is starting where most figurative painters have started, at least since the invention of oil paint: with the rendering of human skin. He is beginning to paint skin in ways you can’t stop looking at.” [NYT] Wiley, Odutola and Marshall are only but three who’ve found ways to mine its depths.
--Ashley James, Communications Intern
Interview with artist Toyin Odutola
by NATASCHA CHTENA
Think Africa Press
Published: 30 May 2011
Just before the opening of Toyin Odutola's first solo show at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, I had an extended and unusually honest chat with the young artist, discussing the 'anatomy' of her technique, perceptions of 'Blackness', politics of identity and artistic convergence amongst many, many things. And behind the "hottest young African import" to the US, I discovered an artist that is painfully aware of every aspect, every second of her creative process.
How does it feel having your first solo show in New York?
I am ecstatic! Sure, there's a multitude of adjectives that come to mind, but nothing truly captures the pride, nervousness and excitement that is consuming me at this moment. I am eternally grateful to my family and friends for helping me reach this point. It's an amazing opportunity.
How is living in California different compared to living in Nigeria?
California is a bit of a strange entity. It encompasses the mythology of the vast, open West: full of infinite possibility, otherworldliness, the unknown frontier; yet, it's choc-full of welcoming pocket communities of the most esoteric kind. Truth be told, grad school requires a considerable mount of concentration and a slowness that is difficult to jump into if too distracted by one's environs. In San Francisco, there's just the right amount of hustle and bustle with a settled calm of a small town. You feel comforted, and yet, you also feel the need to push yourself, to test the waters within a sort of laboratory that is a very peculiar city.
Do you miss home, do you see yourself going back?
The last time I visited Nigeria was back in 2001. It's an incredibly beautiful and vibrant country, full of various textures and tones in the human landscape exemplified through skin, culture, language and history—all of which have been inspiring to my work. Lately, I feel a distance. I do miss it. Being in a sort of limbo state, I identify very much as a Nigerian American, but my birthplace, family heritage and genealogy all harken back to Nigeria. It's a strange place to be in: belonging and not quite belonging, always balancing one's personal affiliations. Also, being of both Yoruba and Igbo decent makes me sort of an anomaly in the Nigerian community, which only adds to my personal feelings of displacement. In any case, I would very much like to visit; I'd planned on doing so this summer, however my plans fell through.
Are you at all in touch with the arts scene in Nigeria? Could you tell us a bit about it?
Sadly, not so much. I've just started scratching the surface, from the little bits of information I've acquired. I've only recently discovered El Anatsui's work, as well as the Center for Contemporary Art in Lagos. From those two discoveries I've been exposed to a plethora of artists and movements unbeknownst to me before, and it's incredibly inspiring! It certainly makes me seriously consider the possibility of working in Nigeria at some point in the future.
How did your parents “react” to your talent and how do they comment on your work now?
There's a commonly cited joke on the reactions Nigerian parents will display upon the discovery that their child intends on pursuing the arts. It's a terrifying notion to them: uncontrollable laughter, flailing arms, screams of agony, tears of failure and resentment, profuse kneeling at the alter and deeply reverberating prayers and songs are exerted. The idea that their son or daughter is willing to take a risk for the entirety of their adult career, as in to voluntarily sacrifice certainty for the sake of art-making, is a foreign concept to parents who have worked so hard to prevent their children from ever being in too precarious a situation financially.
So they don’t approve of the artist lifestyle for their daughter?
I remember the first time I mentioned the very idea of it to my parents and was immediately met with a scoff and a near fainting incident. But I persisted; and I must say, compared to other Nigerian parents in the small town I grew up, mine were by far more supportive and tolerable of my explorations into this field than my fellow Nigerian mates, I think. My parents invested in my inclination, my need to keep at it—much to their chagrin at first—but eventually, it all paid off (at least, I hope that is what they think). Nowadays, they seem exuberant. They are very open to my being an artist and supported my grad school aspirations with pleasure. It's a gift really, for I know how difficult it must have been for them to throw caution to the wind hoping, in the end, it would all be for the best. Concerning my “lifestyle”, they accept me as is and love me regardless of what I do or whom I appear to be, which is very refreshing.
How long did it take you before you “settled” on the technique and aesthetic you are now employing?
The beginnings of this style came about in 2004 as an inquisition—playing with the planes of the human form, namely through the rendering of skin. It was my response to a Figure Drawing assignment I had to tackle during my undergrad foundation studies. Since then, I've been enamored with this idea of analyzing the skin in the form of landscapes and scarification. Every detail of information, on and of the skin, is abstracted and manipulated in a way that renders it recognizable yet foreign. In many ways, this style is an exploration of the limits as well as the possibilities of contradiction; the ability to transfer experiential geography onto a person, it never fails to excite me.
Could you elaborate on that?
I've gradually adjusted the style in time to a smother surface, a more seductive presentation from the harsher more graphic drawings of its beginnings. Although the style is still quite graphic, I'm far more interested in how it has become a sort of specified visual language I've created for myself. No longer am I too concerned with my subjects being directly recognizable in any sort of...anatomically accurate way; nor am I too concerned with stringently comparing and/or contrasting it to the expansive visual language the history of Pan-African representative portraiture has to offer, which obviously greatly influences the work.
But with what?
Currently, I'm more engaged with where the style begins to transcend one's notions of skin and placement. If someone is rendered in a way that is fundamentally dermal and experiential, but somehow separate, it leaves a space for one to implant his/her ideas of belonging and not belonging, possession and freedom from it. Formally, I am very settled on a sort of minimalist presentation (pertaining to the subject/ground relationship). Although most of the action takes place on the skin itself, the aesthetic exposes how the subject interacts within a decontextualized space. The actions which the subject partakes in (as in this “terrain of one's being”) is contrasted by the un-colonized space she inhabits and explores. This binary tension is exploited in the obsessively layered mark-making employed. In the end, what I hope to reveal is that the territory being explored is the subject herself, not the imposed context surrounding them, and what it means to explore the geography of a stranger and find yourself hidden within that person.
Have you ever tried working with color?
I go in and out. For a while I worked very extensively with color. Around 2009, I took a more “monochromatic” turn, if you will. The irony of my works being labeled (and edited by myself considerably) as monochromatic, is the material qualities lending itself otherwise. Working mainly with pen ink, one is acutely aware of how susceptible to light it is. Regardless of whether I am working in black pen ink or some other color tone, the light will always reveal it as a rusty, copper-tone. I find this “surprise” element incredibly seductive, which has led me to apply the mark even deeper, darker and more solidly (as in heavily), to really get at capturing the darkness and the light simultaneously.
What drew you away from it and what role does the monochrome (black & white) play in your work?
All the attributes that lend to the beauty of a polychromatic surface are also the very detractors which cause formal problems in my skin explorations. The main obstacle being the agitated clashing of harsh color with detailed texture. With the heavily considered mark, texture is paramount to me. So, when I do introduce color into the language of this mark, it generally distracts from the geography I wish the viewer's eye to explore undeterred. Although, one of the pieces in (MAPS) utilizes color, in order for the image to work the way I wished, I had to use it sparingly.
The turn towards a monochromatic aesthetic was economical. I wanted to minimize the image to its essential impact—that of creating a space for the skin to speak for itself, and not the context of the subject's skin. This is a double-edged sword approach: in my desire to create subjects that are more than simply Black figures, I render them so graphically with detail that one cannot help but to be consumed by their Blackness. This is meant to be the initial impression, which I hope compels the viewer to investigate the subject further. In so doing, the silhouetted figures' narratives expand and suddenly a whole new experience is revealed.
Your subjects always face the viewer directly. Why is that?
I truly believe in the power of the penetrating gaze. From the beginning of my working with portraiture, I wanted the subjects I created to be active participants in staring as much as the viewer. The direct gaze, even subtly hinted at, hopefully allows for the subject to speak with equal intensity in a very base, humanistic way, as her skin speaks on a territorial level.
It’s widely accepted that in art there is a huge, uncontrollable gap between (the artist’s) intention and (the viewer’s) interpretation. What do you nevertheless hope that you are mediating to your audience?
That is the question that wracks my brain constantly. It's a tricky, near impossible question to answer, really. I mean, in all honesty, the gap between intention and interpretation is where the magic happens, I suppose; it is where the second crucial stage of art-making commences. I could go into deeply personal convictions I have about the work, but that wouldn't much influence how an outsider feels when coming into contact with the work in person. I've had scores of critiques in school where a myriad of responses to my work took place. Some were recognizable, as in somewhat parallel to my intentions for the work; however, for most of it, I was thoroughly surprised. That surprise has altered my own perceptions of the work and, at times, given me cause to seriously re-evaluate my process entirely. Either way, it is a crucial element to my development as an artist.
I assume, then, that you are a ‘supporter’ of the notion of public art?
Art is meant to be presented and open to a public forum, I suppose. I cannot deny the power of that kind of exposure, regardless of one's romantic notions of “art for arts sake.” There is a need to make the work and it is very important that an artist know her impetus for working, for making, which is extremely important, but it is also essential for an artist to have a dialogue with the people and the times in which she exists. This took me quite some time to adjust to and swallow. I use to be very stubborn about the work being exposed in such a way. I held on tightly to Herbert Marcuse's idea of the artists being within her time and yet always separate. To create a classic, one must not always be in agreement or parallel with the time in which she exists. Nowadays, I see how I completely misread this ideology. I was so intent on having me as my artwork's main audience, its main judge. I later realized how wrong I was and how selfish and naïve such an notion sounded.
Whatever ideas I may have or choose to mediate to the viewer will be dependent on his/her interpretation. I cannot change that fact. Truthfully, I mustn't downplay the importance of my making the work and having it exist as an object in this world a la “for the sake of the work.” However, I'm trying not to limit it to an idea in my head. The fact that I made it and it is a part of this world is a gift really and I should cherish it, but I shouldn't discount or run away from the life the work begins to have once it enters the arena of public consumption and discourse. Interesting things happen there and much can be learned from it. I'm slowly getting to understand that now.
There is no denial that your work is politically inclined. Do you think art can change the world?
Yes...and no. In a capitalistic system, creating objects which are a part of that system, inevitably, make it hard to pragmatically change the world. However, the beauty of art's purpose, I think, is when it can transform ideas which directly change how people enact laws, systems of commerce, etc. The strength of art lies in its capacity to evoke strong empathy. This can be utilized for good or ill, depending on who you ask. My work is political; again this is something that took me a while to adjust to. It's obvious to me now, the political angle of the work, but, for a while there, I was so intimately consumed with making the work, with creating these images which I felt needed to be created, I didn't really stop and question how these works are perceived in the context of which they are being made. I make portraits that explore Blackness—as a conceptual, formal and decolonizing agent. This may sound rather naïve, but I began drawing in this heavily detailed and darkened style of mark-making because I wanted desperately to create images of subjects whom I could identify with—subjects who looked like how I felt about my skin, my selfhood. Essentially, I wanted to create the embodiment of what Blackness felt like to me. I wanted the blackest of the black to show full of light, not in contrast or comparison, but a lightness that is within, that is an inextricable part of it. I suppose what I'm trying to say is, I wanted to present a Black figure as something more than Other, something that is vulnerable yet dignified, strong as well as instantly fragile. I wanted to capture me: “I am not this narrative that has been written about me, flattened and archetypal, I am my own person, a land that I now wish to take back. Here, I will show you. Do not omit me or render me invisible to the night. I am here, I will not be erased or smudged out. I am as vast and wondrous as the night sky.” That sort of thing. And that is very political. To demand a presence, to demand a voice, a visibility and rights to a new sort of dialogue is something that has always been there, it just took me awhile to see it for myself.
I am honored when people tell me how much the work impacts them, how connected they feel to the narratives of my subjects and it truly is heartfelt and I am most appreciative. This work came from somewhere deep within me that is very personal and to see that it speaks to a stranger in an equally, if not more, personal way, is quite overwhelming and I am honored to share that connection. The politics of the work are multifaceted (dealing with agency of womanhood and the hybrid postcolonial female identity) in a indirect way, I think. However, there is much artwork in the world that is very direct, very inspiring and impactful. There are multiple ways to create change through art, some are more intimate and personal than others. I feel my work deals with the emphasis of the individual within an essentialist collective and how best to mold one's sense of place within that vast and flattened landscape. When there is a person who can be transported by my work—just one person—that is truly awe inspiring to me. That is change, to me.
What do you think is the greatest misconception people in the West have about Africa and about African artists?
Capitalism's push towards globalization has caused nomadic, flux states to become facts of living now. More and more migrations are taking place not only between Post-Colonial and Western nation states, but within these nation states at an alarming rate. I've read that just within US recent history, it used to be that a couple generations ago people were born in a specific local and remained there for most of their lives—living, working, contributing to that place. Nowadays, that is becoming increasingly rare. People are moving around more and, in so doing, an exchange begins to take place; a transmitting of cultures and information becomes the norm and multicultural spaces begin to form. This is very exciting for a number of reasons: 1) for it allows for more visibility of minority groups in otherwise less diverse or generally homogeneous communities; 2) it allows for mixture to occur, meshing culture, language, economies, politics and the arts, to name a few, which in turn create new, thriving identities; 3) it makes the most basic human commonalities among us more visible. To be sure, there are bad sides to this as well. I think of a resonating excerpt from Zadie Smith's White Teeth (2001):
“But it makes an immigrant laugh to hear the fears of the nationalist, scared of infection, penetration, miscegenation, when this is small fry, peanuts, compared to what the immigrant fears – dissolution, disappearance.”
This particular quote has haunted me for some time and has been my primary concern involving the misconceptions of Westernized views of Africa as a continent as well African artists specifically. There is a disappearance that happens when Africans travel across the oceans and seas into the West. We get lumped together, become a singular entity. The multitudes of identities, tongues, richness and variety, get clumped into a continental country. We are made into something Other, dark, mysterious and always, always foreign. Even in America, amongst the African American community, there is a discord, an impenetrable disconnect. It's incredibly frustrating. A Ghanian is not the same as a Somalian, nor is a Kenyan the same as a Zimbabwean. To quote another writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who brilliantly pin-pointed this problem of the Westernization of Africans in her essay, “The danger of a single story.” In it, she cuttingly illustrates this problem, which she presented in a TED lecture in 2009:
“Years later, I thought about this when I left Nigeria to go to university in the United States. I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my "tribal music," and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove.
What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning, pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa. A single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her, in any way. No possibility of feelings more complex than pity. No possibility of a connection as human equals. I must say that before I went to the U.S. I didn't consciously identify as African. But in the U.S. whenever Africa came up people turned to me. Never mind that I knew nothing about places like Namibia. But I did come to embrace this new identity. And in many ways I think of myself now as African. Although I still get quite irritable when Africa is referred to as a country. The most recent example being my otherwise wonderful flight from Lagos two days ago, in which there was an announcement on the Virgin flight about the charity work in 'India, Africa and other countries.'
Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story, and to start with, "secondly." Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have and entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.
All of these stories make me who I am. But to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience, and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes. And the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.
I've always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”
In sum, the beauty of the human landscape lies in the similarities we share as human beings more so than our distinct differences. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for us to not forget this fact, even though we get caught up in our specialized personas. As Adichie eloquently states, we are all made up of a variety of stories, each and every one of them integral to our selfhood and important to make known, to make visible. However, it is when we use this variety to separate ourselves, to create hierarchies and distance in when we create tragic circumstances for ourselves, no doubt world history has shown us. In this increasingly nomadic, flux state we are living, where everything novel and instantly enacted, to self-dislocate, seems like suicide. Sure, this all sounds very utopian in the insular, conglomerated systems in which we inhabit, but I believe it is this which contributes to the greatest misconceptions about Africans in the Western mindset: that we are one large and Other group of people who are somehow a part of the human landscape but always separate. Disappearance and reinvention of identities are fundamental processes of the human narrative; however, when only certain, very specific narratives overtake others and dominate—intentionally so through the use of power—that is when people get left behind and the human landscape, with all it variety and terrain to explore, appreciate, cultivate and share, becomes not simply more bland, but incomplete.
Where do you stand in regards to the relation between artwork and curatorial text? Do you believe that the one complements the other or rather that “good art” would not require the latter?
It depends, really. This goes back to the question I answered earlier about the need for an artist to have a public forum for her/his work, even if the audience may or may not agree with the work or see conceptually along the same lines as the artist's intentions. Supplementary text to works of art can be helpful as they can easily be detrimental. I, myself, find it very difficult to voice my work in any sort of literary way. Even to respond to these questions has taken days. I have to try and seriously consider how to translate a visual, non-finite language (and idea) with a literal one. It's a very strange process. But who I am to deny the brilliance of a keen critic or astute art historian who is able to partake in this translation. Whether the writer is spot on or not, the attempt is a triumph in an of itself, for it shows there is a possibility for artwork, which exists in a very ambiguous world, to be understood in another. If it works in the artists favor? Wonderful! If not? At least they tried. Since commencing my studies in grad school, I've become increasingly suspicious of the phrase “good art.” I don't even know what that means anymore. Everything in this world is opinion based, nothing is really set in stone. Give a person a few decades and some revised texts and lectures and you are studying an entirely new body of works.
What is it then that matters, if all is relative?
What seems to matter most is if the work resonates with a diverse group of people. The more universal the work proves itself to be, as opposed to being more esoteric and too stoically faithful to a specific time and place, the more likely it will be deemed a classic. There are aesthetic considerations, definitely, but that again can be reinterpreted and realigned with time and energy if the artist's work is deemed worthy of it. There are so many great works of art out there that we have never heard of and probably will never see. I used to fear that my work would fall under this category, so I applied to school and migrated to a center where I believed my work could reach a larger audience. I'd only hoped that with this new forum the work would find new life in the discourse and I've been very fortunate that it has. For a score of artists that doesn't happen. Whether or not their works will be accompanied with curatorial texts could bring them from the drudges of death to new life and beyond, inspiring a new generation of image-makers, is a beautiful story that only happens to a select few. Then again, there could be a well established work that can be brought down six-feet under with the slightest scribble of a writing pen or from the feverish tappings of a keyboard. With the internet everything is becoming more egalitarian. Everyone is a curator now. So the texts seem to be less important and the image itself is taking more precedence. I don't know where this shift will lead, but I'm not discounting how exciting this time is. When the appreciation of art becomes more democratic, what happens with the elitist systems of separation? I don't mind reading the texts which accompany artworks, sometimes I seek them out. But the image is the image and in the end, it should, at the very least, be granted the opportunity to stand on its own..if only for a moment, to see if it can speak for itself.
You have mentioned how you see yourself as an intersection of a self-taught and formally trained artist. Do you think that quality-wise there is a difference between self-taught and formally educated artists?
Again, it's all relative. I mean, it's all personal opinion. I have a very specific aesthetic that I'm attracted to, I am drawn to a certain mode or taste. Whether these attractions are affected by my schooling or my own personal self-development as an artist is questionable. There are trained artists from very prestigious schools who make work that is aesthetically coined “outsider art” or akin to childish scribble, and there are self-taught artists who can beautiful craft a masterpiece on par technically with a David or a Botticelli. What annoys me is when schooling takes precedence over independent student and craft. What do we do as artists? Most of it is spent alone in a studio or whichever place we choose to work, honing our skills, experimenting, expanding our technical capabilities.
So you don’t really believe in the concepts and methods of ‘art school’?
I'm not discounting the importance of a guide, a professorial hand to help us through the process, however I cannot overlook the plethora of artists who make equally (if not more) complex and engaging work that have never stepped foot in a foundational arts class. Creative impulse is the common string that drives us regardless of our training. I think when we get caught up in entitlement, whether self-taught or specifically trained, is when problems arise. If we get set with very specific movements and aesthetics, we loose touch with variety. Like the misconception of Africans question I answered earlier, it's a limitation and it is self-inflicted to only focus on artists who are only self-taught or on the opposing side, trained. In the end both groups are making work to be be viewed to be appreciated and to ruminate on. One should not overtake the other. There is one thing that I feel is needed on both sides that I never thought of until recently, and that is the importance of reading about art. I know this is all very out of turn, especially after the response I gave just before. But I truly believe I have benefitted immensely from having access to philosophical and theory-based texts since commencing art school. It helps you understand the importance of the sources of your work. This goes back to the “art for art's sake” comment. It's all well and good to make work for the pure need to have it be made, I welcome that notion, however, one must understand why: Why are you making the work? Why is it important? Why is it important now? Why is it needed? Why does it matter? Then you can move on to the how and, in turn, the “what” comes more visible and understandable for the artist. So if the audience cannot understand the work, at the very least the artist can.
Who are your favorite artists?
There are so many! I am constantly inspired by the works of a number of artists. Namely, I have been consistently obsessed with the following: Glenn Ligon, Kerry James Marshall, Hank Willis Thomas, Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, Julie Mehretu, Roni Horn, Laylah Ali, Marlene Dumas, Amy Adler, Claudette Schreuders, Kara Walker, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Toba Khedoori, Barkley L. Hendricks, Kimsooja, Adrian Piper, Jeff Sonhouse, Mauricio Lasansky, Zhang Xiaogang, Ursula von Rydingsvard, Mark Bradford, Frida Kahlo (mainly her self portraits, not so much her dreamscapes), Robert Longo, Viviane Sassen, John Singer Sargent, and Egon Schiele.
If you could literally exhibit anywhere in the world (not even necessarily a museum/gallery), where would that be?
Japan. In a space that is meant for healing and exchange. Since I was very little, I've been utterly transfixed by Japanese culture. I really don't know where it all started or where exactly it stemmed from, but since then I've always had a soft spot for the country's unique history and people. Recent tragic events really brought that fact to me hard. If I had the opportunity to exhibit anywhere I would be honored to do so there, to help bridge a gap and create a connection. I'm not sure how I would ever do it, but if ever I was given the chance, I'd sure as hell try to make that a reality.
What do you plan on doing after you graduate?
Working in my studio. Wherever that will be is uncertain, but it needs to happen if I am to function.
Toyin Odutola: (MAPS) runs until June 25, 2011.
Various publications — articles, essays, interviews and mentions — in print and online (with accompanied text).