Unselfconscious is the New Black for Emerging Artists of Colour

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.


Toyin Ojih Odutola, First Impressions, 2017, charcoal, pastel and pencil on paper, 1.9 x 1.1 m. Courtesy: the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York 

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.


Toyin Ojih Odutola, ‘Testing the Name’, 2018, installation view, SCAD Museum of Art and Design, Savannah, Georgia

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.


Toyin Ojih Odutola, Picnic on the grounds, 2017–18, charcoal, pastel and pencil on paper, 1.9 x 1.3 m. Courtesy: the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York  

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?


Toyin Ojih Odutola, Some Respite for a Research Fellow, 2017, charcoal, pastel and pencil on paper, 2 x 1.1 m. Courtesy: the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York  

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.


Toyin Ojih Odutola, ‘Testing the Name’, 2018, installation view, SCAD Museum of Art and Design, Savannah, Georgia

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.


Toyin Ojih Odutola, This Side of Paradise, 2017, charcoal, pastel and pencil on paper, 1.5 x 1.3 m. Courtesy: the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York 

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.


Toyin Ojih Odutola, A Solitary Pursuit, 2017-18, charcoal, pastel and pencil on paper, 76 x 102 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York  

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.


Toyin Ojih Odutola, At Study, 2017-18, charcoal, pastel and pencil on paper, 1.9 x 1.1 m. Courtesy: the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York  

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.


Toyin Ojih Odutola, Three Blessed Heirs, 2017-18, charcoal, pastel and pencil on paper, 102 x 76 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York 

‘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.

Chase Quinn is a writer based in Charleston, South Carolina. His work has appeared in Vanity Fair, Artforum, The Guardian US, and Guernica, among others. 

Most Read

In further news: white supremacist vandals attack Rothko Chapel; Israeli minister bans art produced in solidarity with...
To experience the music of the composer, who passed away last week at the age of 69, was to hear something tense,...
In a year charged with politicized tensions, mastery of craft trumps truth-to-power commentary
The US writer, who died last week, brought a quality of inestimable importance to the modern novel: a mind that was...
The $21M painting was the highest price ever paid for a work by a living African American artist at auction
Royal bodies, the ‘incel’ mindset and those Childish Gambino hot-takes: what to read this weekend
In further news: women wearing rainbow badges beaten in Beijing’s 798; gallerists Georg Kargl and Richard Gray have...
‘Coping as a woman in France is a daily battle: the aggression can be subtle, and you always have to push harder to...
The rapper and artist have thoughts about originality in art; Melania Trump tries graphic design – all the latest...
The dilapidated Nissen hut from which Rachel Whiteread will take a cast
Yorkshire residents complain that the concrete sculpture of a ‘Nissen hut’ will attract excrement, vandalism and litter
Poul Erik Tøjner pays tribute to Denmark’s most important artist since Asger Jorn
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...
Photographer Dragana Jurisic says her account was deactivated after she uploaded an artwork depicting a partially naked...
In further news: open letter protests all-male shortlist for BelgianArtPrize; Arts Council of Ireland issues...
From Sol Calero’s playful clichés of Latin America to an homage to British modernist architect Alison Smithson
Everybody’s favourite underpaid, over-educated, raven-haired art critic, Rhonda Lieberman, is as relevant as ever
‘Prize & Prejudice’ at London's UCL Art Museum is a bittersweet celebration of female talent
The curators want to rectify the biennale’s ‘failure to question the hetero-normative production of space’; ‘poppers...
A fragment of the brutalist Robin Hood Gardens will go on show at the Venice Architecture Biennale
‘Women's role in shaping the history of contemporary art is being reappraised’
Three shows in Ireland celebrate the legendary polymath, artist and author of Inside the White Cube
The legendary performance artists will partner up again to detail their tumultuous relationship in a new book
An open letter signed by over 100 leading artists including 15 Turner prize-winners says that new UK education policy...
Naturists triumph at art gallery; soothing students with colouring books; Kanye’s architectural firm: your dose of art...
Avengers: Infinity War confirms the domination of mass culture by the franchise: what ever happened to narrative...
The agency’s founder talks about warfare in the age of post truth, deconstructing images and holding states and...
From hobnobbing with Oprah to championing new art centres, millennial crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is following a...
A juror for the award last year, Dan Fox on why the Turner Prize is and always will be political (whatever that means)
The argument that ancestral connection offers a natural grasp of the complex histories and aesthetics of African art is...
One of most iconic and controversial writers of the past 40 years, Tom Wolfe discusses writing, art and intellectual...

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

March 2018

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018