Toyin Ojih Odutola

Museum of the African Diaspora
685 Mission St
October 26, 2016–April 2, 2017

Toyin Ojih Odutola, The Marchioness, 2016, charcoal, pastel, and pencil on paper, 83 x 66 x 2 1/2".

The nearly life-size pastel, pencil, and charcoal drawings in Toyin Ojih Odutola’s exhibition ostensibly offer a privileged look at the private lives of an aristocratic African family. The subjects’ nonchalance, combined with the artist’s use of foreshortening and flattening effects, makes these works feel like they are derived from photographs, prompting the question: Whose gaze do we inhabit while viewing them? This query lingers, even after learning that the background story is actually an elaborate fiction that Ojih Odutola has invented to explore the physical markers of wealth.

Her earlier work focuses on individuals, often posed against a plain ground, which emphasizes her stylized rendering of skin: sinewy patterns of rich blacks, highlighted with white and sometimes iridescent blue, orange, and gold. If those drawings collapsed the distinction between visible and invisible aspects of the body, in this new series Ojih Odutola adds to her inquiry the porous boundaries between the self and its surroundings. Her mark-making reinforces this line of research, especially in such superbly complicated compositions as The Marchioness or Lazy Sunday (all works 2016), where overlapping designs on drapery can be read as depth or simply more flat pattern.

These drawings ask not only what does enormous wealth look like but also what does it feel like to look on this life with your own eyes? The artist’s conclusion seems to be a lonely one. Little remains to define individuals if they cannot be separated from their background, in both the literal and the figurative sense.

— Kim Beil