Traveling with Toyin Ojih Odutola


“Well, it started with Hank Willis Thomas, as it always does,” artist Toyin Ojih Odutola says of her latest series of work. Now on view at Jack Shainman Gallery, “Of Context and Without” marks numerous departures in terms of the artist’s traditional oeuvre. Her ballpoint pen portraits have almost always depicted black men, including her brothers, or herself, and she often interspersed black ink with varied colors. The works in this show, however, are monochromatic and Ojih Odutola also strayed from pure pen and ink, introducing both white and black charcoal as well as graphite. Perhaps even more notably than the changes in medium, the show’s subject matter denotes an entirely new territory for the 30-year-old artist: iconic white men are rendered with black skin tones and white hair; men and women interact in a way such that one cannot tell if the action is violent or tender; drawings of black men are made with white charcoal on white board; and sketches are included within final pieces. For the artist, these departures, though drastic, were much needed. 

“I was scared at first, there was trepidation. But now, there’s so much movement,” Ojih Odutola explains when we speak with her in the lower level of the Chelsea gallery. “It frees me. I feel like I can roam, which, trust me girl, is something you really want.”

Born in Nigeria and raised in Alabama, Ojih Odutola received her B.A. from the University of Alabama in Hunstville before continuing to California College of the Arts for her M.F.A. “Of Context and Without” marks the artist’s fourth solo show in just as many years at Jack Shainmain, but she has also participated in group exhibitions around the world—including one that Thomas curated at Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg and another at the Studio Museum in Harlem, which is still on view.

More than traveling for her work, “I always travel through it when I’m making it,” she says. “I always think of my work in terms of landscape, because it is plains, hills, and valleys. There’s a sculptural element, a tactility to it,” she continues. “The textures, to me, are landscapes.” Just after the show’s opening, we met the artist to discuss her practice’s changes, the constructs of whiteness and blackness, and of course, traveling.

EMILY MCDERMOTT: The series of white men are the first portraits of white men you’ve ever made in this scale. What led to that decision?

TOYIN OJIH ODUTOLA: Hank [curated] “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” and the premise of that show was to talk about the Black Lives Matter movement. It was shown in South Africa, in Johannesburg, and I thought, “This is an American artist talking about race in a completely different context.” I knew my work was known for black subjects and I didn’t want to portray black victimhood, so I thought, “What can I tackle? Let me be really cerebral about this…” I wanted to tackle blackness as a subject—not the men, but blackness itself—and how it negates or devalues a subject, at least in our Western construct. Then I thought, “How am I going to make this even more clever? Let me do famous white guys.”

MCDERMOTT: Some of them I can easily recognize—there’s Mick Jagger, Picasso, Reagan—but others, I’m like, “I have no idea who that is.”

OJIH ODUTOLA: And that’s the beauty of it, because the blackness usurps. The reason we’re showing it in a grid was because it’s like the lineup, the mug shots. There’s one of Benedict Cumberbatch in a hoodie. The guy went to Harrow [School, an English independent school for boys], but does that matter? Because the moment he’s rendered in blackness and a hoodie, what do you think?

MCDERMOTT: Who is on the bottom right? He’s the only man whose head is cropped, rather than rendered in full.

OJIH ODUTOLA: That’s Bobby Fischer. He was the first one. That was a test and usually the test is the one you’re not quite sure about. I thought, “Maybe if I make it really extreme…” But then I decided, “No, I want them to be traditional head shots.” I loved how severe he looked in the photo; it’s unsettling. There’s an interview with Bobby Fischer, where he talks about being Jewish, being raised Jewish, and his issues with that. But once I render him black, his Jewishness is gone, washed away. So there were certain subjects I picked specifically, but there were others, like Prince Charles, that I just thought, “Why not?”

MCDERMOTT: Were you sourcing images online?

OJIH ODUTOLA: There’s many departures in this show, but that’s one of them—I’m using sourced material. It’s not mine, but it doesn’t have to be mine because I transform them in the treatment of the work. Does it matter where it comes from? What it becomes is what I’m interested in. There were a few that I found on Google. Then there was some stuff I found in books.  

MCDERMOTT: I read Alphabet, the book based off of your thesis, and your artist statement in 2012 was to “depict black portraiture.” Do you feel like the works in this show have changed that statement?

OJIH ODUTOLA: Absolutely. I’ll say it this way: I’ve always felt the portrait is an occasion for marks to happen. I’ve never viewed the portrait as about the sitter. Even when I go to the National Portrait Gallery, I’m not thinking about the sitter; I’m thinking about how the artist chose that color or that highlight. It becomes about the time, place, and context—”Of Context and Without,” this idea of how malleable identity is when you’re looking at a portrait. Are we seeing a portrait of a subject or are we seeing a portrait of the artist?

MCDERMOTT: That directly reflects your own self-portraits and how you don’t view them as yourself. They’re all from the third person.

OJIH ODUTOLA: Exactly. I always say “her.” I can’t see it as me—girl, that girl up there, that is not me. My booty is not that perched! [both laugh]

MCDERMOTT: So when did you start looking at yourself in the third person and why?

OJIH ODUTOLA: It’s hard for me to engage with the work [otherwise]. It’s easier [in the third person]. Maybe because I was raised in a British colony, the British tradition of the third person, but I’ve always looked at things in the third person when I work. There is some personal stuff, like when I draw my brothers, but when it’s me, it’s severed, it’s very clinical. I’m thinking about me as an artist making it, but not me in the personal sense. I’m only worried that people inject the personal into the read [of the work], like, “Oh this must be about [her].” It’s like, “No, it has nothing to do [with me]. It’s about the marks.” I feel more comfortable using my image as opposed to someone else’s because then I can fuck around. But when I do stuff in third person, it’s not to devalue.

MCDERMOTT: How does using this third person perspective lead to recognizing new things about yourself as a person?

OJIH ODUTOLA: It reveals a lot about what I see. When I separate myself, I see more. When you’re too close, things get a bit hazy. When I’m objective—and the more clinical the better—I can play conceptually with things that otherwise I wouldn’t. That title, [The Object is the Technique + The Technique is the Object], came to me because I was thinking objectively. Originally I wanted to call it What’s On Offer—not a good title—but I was reading a Francis Bacon biography and there was a quote he said, “The object is a technique and the technique is the object,” describing his paintings. I thought, “Boom! This is beautiful, this is describing what I’m doing. This isn’t me; this is an amalgamation of marks, this is technique, this is form.” The only reason I could do that is because I distanced myself. If you’re worried about exposure, like, “Is my tummy tucked okay? God, my hair!” then you’re never going to move forward.

MCDERMOTT: Your use of white-on-white is another departure.

OJIH ODUTOLA: Huge. I mean, how do you objectify whiteness? I did a series for my thesis in 2012 called “Come Closer” and it was black ballpoint pen, on blackboard, drawing black subjects.

MCDERMOTT: So are these white subjects?

OJIH ODUTOLA: No, and that’s the only difference. I thought about doing that, but I was like, “That’s too easy. Let me make all the subjects black.” And that’s the point, because does it matter? It’s still an exercise, it’s absence and presence. I’m always making work that’s high contrast: you see it, you know it, and you immediately feel it, specifically the colored ballpoints. But that work, it’s monochrome, almost void of color, and almost evades meaning. The feeling of not quite being sure if you’re settled on something is something I’ve always wanted with my work, and that [series] really achieves it. The other piece that was close to achieving that was the guy holding the girl, [Melting into Texture or The Future Grown Impatient].

MCDERMOTT: I was going to ask about that one because when I saw it, I was thinking, “I’ve never seen any work by Toyin that’s so forceful, almost violent.”

OJIH ODUTOLA: But other people might think, is it tender? Is it a trusting action? That and the piece opposite it—[And She Accepted This], the hand with the shoulder—are informally in conversation. His hand is the agent in Melting into Texture and it could equally be violent or tender because of the way he’s looking at her—but her face is in anguish. In art history, when you show a hand, it means just as much as showing a face. The second one, And She Accepted, the guy is laying on her lap, her face may be cut off but his hand is cut off. So who is the actor in And She Accepted This? Her hand is on the shoulder, so she is. She takes over. In the other one, her hands are not shown, but his hands are. It’s this idea of where is the agency? I love those because I feel like the narrative can change depending on the day, your mood.

MCDERMOTT: You’ve never had a narrative in your work before. What made you want to go in that direction?

OJIH ODUTOLA: The Black Lives Matter movement. I think you’re exhausted with victimhood and you feel like my work is now aligned with that—not that it’s bad, it just felt confining. It felt like the possibilities were being limited more and more.

MCDERMOTT: Which is totally opposite your approach of blackness being both enveloping and expansive.

OJIH ODUTOLA: Exactly. It’s always been about the multi-faceted. I feel like there are universes within people and in the work, but the read [of the work] wasn’t getting that. I had to restrict myself, ironically, in order to get there, so I took color out completely. When you have such a limit, you want to break free, you want to push the boundaries of the marks, the compositions, the subjects. I could play in a way I couldn’t before. I didn’t feel responsible for blackness as a social thing, in a way. It was inevitably going to come in, but in the making I wasn’t thinking, “Am I representing blackness right now?”

MCDERMOTT: I read an interview that was focused on these works but prior to the opening of the show, and you hadn’t really figured out what the meaning was…

OJIH ODUTOLA: And I love that. Every show I’ve done, I’ve known from the moment it opened that, “This is this. That is that.” This is the first show where I’m like, “I don’t know…” [The meaning has revealed itself] a little, but I feel like I might come back in January and feel totally different—and I welcome that. In the past, I might not have been as welcoming, maybe because I was afraid. Now, I’m much more open. The inclusion of sketch, girl, that was hard; it’s revealing me and how I think. The sketch, to me, is more revealing than showing a naked photo of myself. You see how I demarcate. You see how I see the world.

MCDERMOTT: Why did you chose to do it?

OJIH ODUTOLA: Originally it was an accident. Carlos Vega, another artist here [at Jack Shainman], came to my studio and saw it in sketch mode. He was like, “Leave it. It looks great. It feels finished; it feels like a completed thought.” I was like, “Are you nuts?! There’s no way!” He was like, “Do me a favor and do another drawing exactly the way you want to do it. Then put them side by side.” Sure enough, I finished it and was like, “You’re right. This is something else now,” and I started including sketch in other pieces. Toward the latter half of the year, I started getting specific with the choice of subject, kind of like, “Let’s get three tenants, at least.” I always try to get three tenants: sketch, absence and presence, and process.

MCDERMOTT: When did you decide to leave color behind?

OJIH ODUTOLA: It’s all within the past year. Last year, the moment charcoal was introduced, suddenly I saw possibilities. It changed everything. I said, “Okay, colors have to go.” Pen and ink was also physically starting to get to me. I love making it, but to save myself physically and emotionally I can’t make it all the time. The charcoal, it’s a really matte surface and it’s calming. The white charcoal wasn’t, ironically enough, but black charcoal is. I had a lot of issues with the white charcoal at first, [but] I like what the white does; it renders everyone the same. It was like an erasure. There have been so many times where someone asks, “Is that a white person?” I’m like, “Does it matter?” The marks supplant the color, and that has never happened in my work before. That’s what I like about tools: once you change a tool, your whole perspective changes. It’s like traveling. You go to another locale, everything is different. But, you’re more revealed, right? You start to learn more about yourself in this other context.

MCDERMOTT: I was actually going to ask you about travel, because it’s known that you love to travel, even if it’s just a new neighborhood in Brooklyn. What’s the last place you visited that inspired you or made you learn something new about yourself?

OJIH ODUTOLA: This year I’ve traveled so much, but I think France. I went to Paris for the first time this year. Also, Johannesburg, when I went for Hank’s show, was revealing. Every time I’ve gone to Africa, I’ve always gone to Nigeria, to my family. Suddenly my blackness meant something different because I was American. When I go to Nigeria, it’s a different kind of American because I have family there. This time, it was very distinctive and fascinating to see how people talked to me opposed to people of African descent. I was learning little things about myself, how I walked around, or as I told a friend, “how I wear this skin.” When you wear it and you travel, you learn so much about yourself.

Paris was the first time that I felt really comfortable, and that’s saying a lot. It’s Europe. It’s another ballgame. It’s another history. I felt comfortable walking down the street. I didn’t feel that in Japan; I didn’t feel that in Florence; I didn’t feel that in Jo-Berg; even in London I didn’t feel that. When I would walk through Tokyo, there were moments where I was so aware. But in Paris, people treated us like we were French, like we belonged. We had so many people walk up to us and speak [in French]. To be in a space that you are “foreign” and to feel like you belong and feel safe in that space, especially if you’re a traveler, that’s crazy. I’ve never had that experience before, not even in Nigeria.

MCDERMOTT: I imagine that might parallel the new works you’ve made. Did you feel uncomfortable when making them, but at the end find a place of relative comfort?

OJIH ODUTOLA: Yeah. I felt so uncomfortable. Paris was around the time when I was wrapping up [the show] and felt more confident. But January to June or July, I was so uncomfortable. I had a lot of moments—I wouldn’t say breakdowns, but it was close. There were times where I was like, “What are you doing? What is happening? This doesn’t make any sense. This is completely out of character.” There were moments where I truly wanted to start over, do a new series. But, I think that’s the beauty of the show: I went into this without any confidence at all. Whereas every show in the past I had at least a little confidence. There were moments when I was making the works, especially the white charcoals, where I just didn’t know. That uncertainty is so debilitating.

MCDERMOTT: So what do you do to reground yourself and gain the confidence to continue in a difficult new direction?

OJIH ODUTOLA: I would have to center myself and really think about the next one. If I focused on uncertainty, I wouldn’t be able to tackle [the next one]. And honey, soundtracks! So many pieces would not have been created if it wasn’t for music. That self-portrait [The Object is the Technique + The Technique is the Object]—I listened to Adele’s “Hello” on repeat for probably 57,000 times, “Hello” for three days. A couple of the white charcoals were “Hustle Hard” [by Ace Hood]. A lot of Kelly Rowland’s “Motivation,” The Spinners’ “I’ll be Around,” a lot of Al Greene and a lot of Aretha [Franklin]. And Marvin Gaye! It sounds silly, but it really helps. It distracts you from your thoughts. Music was integral to me moving on.

MCDERMOTT: Does music always play such a significant role in your process?

OJIH ODUTOLA: It has always kind of been there, but I wouldn’t have been able to make the work without it this time. Travel was also a saving grace. You inject yourself with so much and you come back and you’re like, “Yes! Let’s go!” I don’t know if I’m going to have that luxury next year, but I would like to incorporate it more into my practice. It sounds weird, but sometimes you have to leave.

MCDERMOTT: It’s not weird at all. If you stay one place, it becomes boring. You have to leave your bubble.

OJIH ODUTOLA: Exactly. We get so caught up in the spaces we’re in, this body even, and once you move, you have this outer body experience. You feel like you’re in a completely different world. Suddenly you do things you didn’t think you could do, you bring that back, and it changes everything. That happened in Paris. I bought these Oxford shoes and I would never buy Oxfords, but I wore them all the time. I was like, “Ooh, I’m an Oxford-wearing girl!” [laughs] This little item of clothing changed the way I thought of myself, and thus changed my confidence in myself. It’s little things like that I really love. If you can have one of those moments in a year, it changes everything. It’s enough. And I had a lot of that. So I’m very grateful for 2015. I really believe, like Anthony Bourdain always says, travel really changes you.