Critics’ Picks

Toyin Ojih Odutola, As He Watched Him Walk Away, 2020, colored pencil and graphite on Dura-Lar, 11 x 14".

Toyin Ojih Odutola, As He Watched Him Walk Away, 2020, colored pencil and graphite on Dura-Lar, 11 x 14".

New York

Toyin Ojih Odutola

Jack Shainman Gallery
524 West 24th Street
September 10 – October 2020

Nigerian American artist Toyin Ojih Odutola is a master of the epic narrative. Her breakout 2017 solo show at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art chronicled a marriage between two men from fictitious aristocratic families in Nigeria. And her debut exhibition in the United Kingdom, currently on view at London’s Barbican Centre, spins a yarn about a Nigerian autocracy run by female warriors who oppress male workers—a tale that spans forty sequential drawings and took the artist more than eight months to formulate prior to execution.

In Ojih Odutola’s presentation here, the artist explores world-building on a more intimate scale. She relinquishes her elaborate aliases and sweeping mythologies to offer her viewers something less guarded: microfictions that imagine the inner lives of everyday Black subjects through exquisitely drawn, closely cropped portraits and short text panels. She made these vignettes during the Covid-19 lockdown, a period of mandated isolation during which, to an extent, human connection itself had become a fiction.

The fundamental gaps in our understanding of others’ experiences—regardless of the quality of our communicative tools or the capaciousness of our empathy—lie at the heart of these open-ended narratives. In one picture, a text panel with a curt accusation—“YOU HAD SOMETHING REALLY SPECIAL. WHY’D YOU HAVE TO GO AND FUCK IT UP?”—hovers by an image of a figure cradling a cell phone. Elsewhere, a portrait of a woman sleeping is paired with a written plea (which is also the show’s title): “Tell me a story, I don’t care if it’s true.” In another image, sans writing, a man covers his face with his hands in an empty landscape, moist patches of green abutting smoky strata of sky. His tale has now been placed, gently, in our hands.