1858 Prize Finalist: Toyin Ojih Odutola
“Identity is often varying, suspect, and ever-changing,” shares Toyin Ojih Odutola, a visual artist and 1858 Prize finalist. Odutola’s body of work depicts black portraiture with a variety of media—ballpoint pen, charcoal, pastel, pencil and marker. By portraying different individuals and scenes, Odutola scrutinizes identity, race, and social concepts of skin color in Western society. She looks at skin as geography and expands this terrain by emphasizing the specificity of blackness, a person’s subjectivity, as well as various realities and experiences. For Toyin, skin is topography that reveals time, place, memory, and evolving identity.
Born in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, Odutola draws from her personal history as artistic inspiration. As a young girl, she moved to the United States and later pursued an education from the University of Alabama (BA) and California College of the Arts (MFA). While her family roots remain in Meridianville, Alabama, she currently lives in New York City where she continues to develop her artistic passion. Odutola’s drawings are featured as solo and group exhibitions in prestigious institutions, such as the Brooklyn Museum, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Menil Collection in Houston.
As an 1858 Prize finalist, Toyin offers a collection of drawings that depicts different black portraits of varying compositions, subject matter, and mixed media. This exhibit reflects a sense of loss within individuals. Her mastery of the human anatomy and face allows her to recreate haunting yet beautiful representations of different people. “I create drawings which emphasize how an image is a striated terrain to tactically mine, traversing such themes as the unreliability of memory, how skin can render place and time as opposed to a person, and how identity is often varying,” shares Toyin.
In All These Garlands Prove Nothing VIII (2013) and A Visual Grammar (2015–16), Toyin draws two cropped compositions of black males against white backgrounds. Their introspective facial expressions prompts emotional engagement with the viewer; however, Odutola’s manipulation of human skin attracts immediate attention. She draws patterns of light line etchings into each man’s skin, which creates a beautiful rendition of the human form. “The possibilities of portraying a fully-fledged person are endless,” Toyin says. “For me, the portrait is the occasion not the representation, an event or space where my marks happen.”
The entirety of Odutola’s submitted work for the 1858 Prize connects through visual and contextual similarities. Her depiction of black figures toys with dramatic value contrast between the foreground and the background. In The story of the hunt glorifies no one (homage to Chinua Achebe) (2013), Toyin continues her abstract rendition of human skin, yet unlike All These Garlands Prove Nothing VIII and A Visual Grammar, the black male subjects have light skin that pops against a black background. “What I am creating is literally black portraiture with a variety of media. Where some may see flat, static narratives, I see a spectrum of tonal gradations and realities,” she explains.
Through compelling compositions and subject matter, Odutola draws a unique body of work that uses visual simplicity to provoke complex reflections. She makes her artist’s mark in Western society and continues to challenge cultural views on skin color and thus identity.
—Helen Clay, Summer Intern, Gibbes Museum of Art
Top Image: The story of the hunt glorifies no one (homage to Chinua Achebe), 2013, by Toyin Ojih Odutola; marker on board; 30 x 44 inches, Courtesy of the artist
Published August 11, 2016