Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition of the ‘black experience’
In her review of A Wrinkle in Time (2018) for the New York Times, writer Salamishah Tillet argues that director Ava DuVernay’s decision to cast Storm Reid, a black actor, as the film’s main character Meg ‘helps redefine our notions of the universal’. DuVernay’s choice, Tillet says, is groundbreaking, not simply because she cast a black actor in the lead role, but because in so doing she invites the audience to see themselves in her. The move helps to depose whiteness as the default shorthand for broader human experience.
In her current show at the SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah, Georgia, Nigerian born artist Toyin Ojih Odutola stages a similar coup, as one part of a larger cultural shift in art, music and film toward an expanded definition of the ‘black experience’ and more diverse representations of women of colour. In ‘Testing the Name’, on view through 9 September, Ojih Odutola features ‘rarely exhibited portraits of the Omodele Family’, an aristocratic Nigerian house whose ‘members have been instrumental in fields of trade, ambassadorship and governance’. The introductory wall text indicates the exhibit is intended to honour the family’s legacy, and is the result of a collaboration between SCAD, the baron of the Omodele family and his husband Jideofor Emeka, the 19th Marquess of the UmuEze.
By underscoring their royal titles and briefly alluding to the gay marriage uniting these prominent black African families, Ojih Odutola covertly summons a familiar cast of stereotypes about black people globally – that they are poor, uneducated and homophobic – and brushes them aside like cards in an insufficiently dealt hand.
Drawn in by the story of the Omodele, one wonders nonetheless: who are they and why would SCAD devote a whole exhibit to them? It is yet another sleight of hand. The artist invented the family and the exhibit’s occasion, exposing with that fiction just how deeply entrenched our ideas of who merits artistic representation remain. How many exhibits feature aristocratic white families in the high halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for instance, and how often do we ask ourselves why?
Unlike some of her contemporaries – Kehinde Wiley, for example, who first became famous by depicting black street models in grand portraits based on paintings from the European renaissance – Ojih Odutola is distinct for her works’ focus on scenes both bourgeois and banal. Her subjects, listless and wistful, instead of performing heroics on horseback, sit idly gazing out of windows and ruminating over cups of coffee, as in This Side of Paradise (2017). In Some Respite for a Research Fellow (2017), a young black woman with an afro, glasses and a stylish midi button-up dress slouches against a wall in a stolen moment of repose. The moment, as in so much of Ojih Odutola’s work, feels at once unremarkable and unprecedented. Like a necessary, if unglamorous, confirmation: indeed, there are stylish black women research fellows, even if you’ve never seen one on TV.
In Gap Year (2017), another young woman sits hunched in pajamas on a piazza porch. She appears, from the state of her hair and undress, existentially undone. The vertical perspective of the portrait conveys the vertigo any undergraduate might experience contemplating the daunting question, ‘What will I do with my life?’, that feels universal in its innocent first-worldness.
The fact that Ojih Odutola’s show comes at a time when the likenesses of America’s first black President (incidentally of African parentage) and First Lady now hang proudly in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., makes her own portraiture feel especially prescient, and in dialogue with other emerging and unorthodox representations of black identity.
Issa Rae, for example, has achieved fame for writing and starring in ‘Insecure’, a show about being an awkward black girl, when for decades to be black meant to be ‘cool’, not awkward. In the music world, artists like SZA are ditching the black diva stereotype, and instead cultivating an alternative R&B image and sound that casts her as vulnerable, unsure, girlish and flawed. If one way to achieve visibility as a minority in a white, heteronormative, colonialist patriarchy is to passionately organize and protest, and another is to mould yourself into a scrupulous exemplar of your identity group, then perhaps being seen having commonplace experiences is yet another step towards social progress. Indeed, the matter-of-factness of Ojih Odutola’s work reminds us that none of the scenarios she presents should be so hard to imagine. After all, the fictional young woman questioning her future in Gap Year could be Malia Obama, the former President’s eldest daughter, who herself took a gap year at Harvard.
With A Solitary Pursuit (2017–18), Ojih Odutola offers up an even more deceptively radical image that touches on cultural assumptions about race, gender and age. Here, a white-haired woman sits erect in the driver’s seat of a pink Cadillac. Top down, with tinted shades on, her expression is resolute, her eyes on the road. She rests one arm on the car’s door. A wide desert stretches behind her. She could be Thelma or Louise, driving herself off the edge of a cliff, with the sense of freedom and romance Americans have always associated with the open road. She isn’t at church, she isn’t a maid, and she isn’t caring for anyone’s children. She is merely at the wheel and, as unlikely as it may seem, the star of her own Hollywood film.
Beyond subject-matter, Ojih Odutola’s work is distinguished by her technique. Like Amy Sherald, the painter of Michelle Obama’s official portrait, who often uses cool slates, greys and charcoals to offset her subjects’ complexion, Ojih Odutola makes equally bold choices, using a variety of textures and colours to convey the depth and tonal variety of black skin, again resisting the monolithic (and monochromatic) idea of blackness. In The Abstraction of a Continent (2017–18), one of the show’s most memorable works, a member of the Omodele clan is captured in close-up, his eyes downcast, his head shaping the outline of the continent of Africa. Ojih Odutola’s use of oil-slick black and blue, charcoal, paste and pencil to render the man’s expression against the sky-blue backdrop and the light pink of his shirt is nothing short of ravishing. You can feel the wash of emotion weighing on his brow and breaking over his face like the Atlantic Ocean, beautiful and bottomless.
‘Tell the truth, but tell it slant,’ Emily Dickenson once wrote. With ‘Testing the Name’, Ojih Odutola takes up that charge. By presenting the viewer with a fictional, aristocratic black African family with two gay sons, engaged in the banalities of an airy, bourgeois life, she reveals the gaps in our cultural imagination. The Omodeles may not be real, but people like them are. Their name withstands the test.
Toyin Ojih Odutola, ‘Testing the Name’ runs at the SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah, Georgia, until 9 September.