Toyin Ojih Odutola: A New Myth from an Ancient African Plateau

Installation view of Toyin Ojih Odutola “A Countervailing Theory” at The Curve, Barbican, 11 August 2020 – 24 January 2021 © Toyin Ojih Odutola. Photo by Max Colson. Image courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
Portrait of Toyin Ojih Odutola. Photography by Beth Wilkinson. © Toyin Ojih Odutola. Image courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
Installation view of Toyin Ojih Odutola “A Countervailing Theory” at The Curve, Barbican, 11 August 2020 – 24 January 2021 © Toyin Ojih Odutola. Photography by Tim Whitby, Getty Images. Image courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
Toyin Ojih Odutola, A Parting Gift; Hers and Hers, Only. © Toyin Ojih Odutola. Pre-installation image. Photo by Max Colson. Image courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
Toyin Ojih Odutola, To the Next Outpost from A Countervailing Theory, 2019. © Toyin Ojih Odutola. Pre-installation image. Photo by Max Colson. Image courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
Installation view of Toyin Ojih Odutola “A Countervailing Theory” at The Curve, Barbican, 11 August 2020 – 24 January 2021 © Toyin Ojih Odutola. Photography by Tim Whitby, Getty Images. Image courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
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CoBo Social Market News Reports

In a curving concrete gallery in London, Nigerian-American artist Toyin Ojih Odutola takes us on a journey into a mythical African past. The show, “A Countervailing Theory,” asserts African identity, but with a sense of enchantment.

TEXT: Herbert Wright
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

 

Installation view of Toyin Ojih Odutola “A Countervailing Theory” at The Curve, Barbican, 11 August 2020 – 24 January 2021 © Toyin Ojih Odutola. Photo by Max Colson. Image courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

 

It’s a good feeling to be standing at the start of The Curve, a 90m-long double-height gallery that, true to its name, curves through the brutalist internal maze of London’s Barbican Centre. It’s not just because this is the first show there since COVID-19 shut down public art galleries. It’s also because of the immediate sense of mystery and anticipation of a journey that the show before you induces. A series of black-and-white works recedes along one wall, and there’s a soundtrack full of rhythms and moods. This is Nigerian-American artist Toyin Ojih Odutola’s show “A Countervailing Theory.” It should have opened in March. How the world has changed since then. But Ojih Odutola takes us to a very different world, an imaginary construct set in prehistoric central Nigeria.

The show is a mythological narrative told through 40 sequenced drawings done in charcoal, pastel and chalk. Ojih Odutola is known for her portraits, and there are plenty of people pictures here, but she also creates and explores landscapes. The specific landscape setting is intimately connected to people she portrays in the myth she weaves. The artist was born in Ife in Plateau State, in the heart of Nigeria, and her family moved to the US when she was five years old. The Jos Plateau gives the state its name and has dramatic rock outcrops. Ojih Odutola has given herself the fictional director of the Jos Plateau Research Initiative, and in that guise, she has written a statement, which you find at the end of the show (although it may just as well have served as an introduction). The statement explains that new archeological works have found shales with markings from an ancient civilisation, and that scans of the shales are the exhibition.

 

Portrait of Toyin Ojih Odutola. Photography by Beth Wilkinson. © Toyin Ojih Odutola. Image courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

 

The myth Ojih Odutola builds from these ‘found’ images imagines a society ruled by women, served by a worker class of men. Heterosexual relationships are outlawed, and babies grow in pods that are like large fruits. Ojih Odutola’s imagery is powerful. It explores the power dynamics of this society, the women radiating a sense of authority and strength, the men subdued in their toil. There is a strong anatomical sensuality in both men and women. She draws characters whose skin is textured with light, an effect that has evolved out of Ojih Odutola’s previous portraits. The fantasy landscape she has created is rich in both exotic plants and rock formations.

That’s the setting. But what story unfolds in it? A key to decoding that story is the title of each work, which is given in a paper companion guide to exhibition visitors. A Parting Gift; Hers and Hers, Only (2019), for example, portrays women kissing, presumably before one must depart on a mission, while To the Next Outpost (2019) shows a man in the service of a woman looking out into the landscape they cross. Meanwhile the suggestion of desire is unmistakable in Rest Stop (2019) where the man turns his head to gaze at the woman exercising. The man and woman come together. The mythical twin brother and sister revealed as fetuses in a womb in Consequences Unforeseen (2019) grow up as Children of the Century (2019), and their heads become immortalised in the form of a rock outcrop.

 

Installation view of Toyin Ojih Odutola “A Countervailing Theory” at The Curve, Barbican, 11 August 2020 – 24 January 2021 © Toyin Ojih Odutola. Photography by Tim Whitby, Getty Images. Image courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
Toyin Ojih Odutola, A Parting Gift; Hers and Hers, Only. © Toyin Ojih Odutola. Pre-installation image. Photo by Max Colson. Image courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
Toyin Ojih Odutola, To the Next Outpost from A Countervailing Theory, 2019. © Toyin Ojih Odutola. Pre-installation image. Photo by Max Colson. Image courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

 

This is indeed the stuff of myths. This myth becomes an immersive experience with a soundtrack by Peter Adjaye, brother of leading international architect David Adjaye (with whom he has often collaborated). The acoustics are atmospheric and cinematic, laced with African percussion rhythms, and the mood ranges from ambient and idyllic to ominous, as if a storm is brewing. You may experience it out of sequence with the story as you journey through Ojih Odutola’s individual panels and boards, but the overall effect remains.

Why the need for this new African myth? Locations all over the world are being reminded that colonial history leaves not just legacy but its own myths that demand to be challenged. In Africa, ancient civilisations were long dismissed as impossible by Europeans. When an exquisitely worked bronze head was found in Ife, a German archeologist speculated that there must have once been an ancient Greek colony dwelling there. The Bronze Head of Ife was something Ojih Odutola heard about in the BBC’s podcast “History of the World in 100 Objects,” and, as the show’s curator Lotte Johnson reports, ‘it was a trigger in her mind to create this myth’.

The exhibition left me intrigued, on many levels. Did her unique approach to representing Black skin have a distant root in the Chicago artist Wadsworth Jarrell’s psychedelic deconstructivist portraits of activists in the 1960s onwards? Would Ojih Odutola agree that the myth she’s woven was about the victory of love? And how does the show fit in with Afrofuturism, the genre of art, film and music that celebrates and asserts African identity through epic fantasy? It’s easy to see “A Countervailing Theory” as Afrofuturism, only without the sci-fi technology and übercool power costumes. Further, is she challenging not just colonial narratives, but also conversely addressing the homophobic climate of contemporary African societies? In Nigeria, gay relationships have been criminalised since colonial times and the penalty is death in states with Sharia law.

 

Installation view of Toyin Ojih Odutola “A Countervailing Theory” at The Curve, Barbican, 11 August 2020 – 24 January 2021 © Toyin Ojih Odutola. Photography by Tim Whitby, Getty Images. Image courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

 

Ojih Odutola’s show delivers its strong agendas with deeply imaginative visions and masterful technique. Her choice of Adjaye for the soundtrack was perfect. It’s extraordinary how a show of monochromatic black and white works can become a cinematic epic. Not least, as a good myth should, “A Countervailing Theory” also has the power of enchantment.

 

 

Toyin Ojih Odutola: A Countervailing Theory
11 August 2020 – 24 January 2021
Barbican Centre, London

 

 

 
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