San Francisco

Toyin Ojih Odutola, A Grand Inheritance, 2016, charcoal, pastel, and pencil on paper, 89 × 60".

Toyin Ojih Odutola, A Grand Inheritance, 2016, charcoal, pastel, and pencil on paper, 89 × 60".

Toyin Ojih Odutola

Toyin Ojih Odutola, A Grand Inheritance, 2016, charcoal, pastel, and pencil on paper, 89 × 60".

From the outset, Toyin Ojih Odutola’s solo exhibition “A Matter of Fact” makes visitors complicit in its fabulist conceit. What we are about to see, an introductory wall panel announces, is the “private collection of rarely exhibited portraits depicting the UmuEze Amara family,” a fictional aristocratic Nigerian clan, the portrayals of whom purportedly span two hundred years. The eighteen pieces on view, all made with charcoal, pastel, and pencil, and most of them life-size portraits, provide clues to the family’s histories—its proclivities, its relationships, and, above all, its members’ tastes. Rather than posing as the clan’s in-house portraitist, Ojih Odutola casts herself as “private secretary” to the family’s queer patriarchs (who are presented as the show’s curators, and whose portrait, Newlyweds on Holiday [all works 2016], hangs just outside the gallery proper).

Whether portraying queer intimacy or resisting uncomplicated hagiographic depictions of her subjects, Ojih Odutola has long challenged assumptions regarding black life. “A Matter of Fact” is less a departure from than an expansion of the artist’s now-signature treatment of black skin: Heavily inked markings render black faces as light and motion. While her previous portraits were closely cropped, their subjects set against empty backgrounds, the new ones are looser, larger, their subjects’ surrounds more narrative driven. Ojih Odutola has widened her lens and shifted our attention from skin to body; her figures’ personae and experiences are additionally revealed by their positioning within luxe interiors. Richly colored and full of detail and texture, the show manages to be at once studied and imaginative, thought-provoking and playful. Ojih Odutola began this series following a two-month residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts in California’s Marin County. It is thus fitting that “A Matter of Fact” debuts at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora, a venue that has grown increasingly innovative in its curatorial practice and programming over the past few years. Opened as a cultural heritage center and educational museum in late 2005, MoAD has recently turned its attention to contemporary work by artists of African descent. “A Matter of Fact” is one of the most robust manifestations of this new direction.

Amid its color and exuberance, the show asks a difficult question: Can black subjects be plausibly depicted as possessors of wealth and trustees of (Anglo) aristocratic lineages rather than as vassals who produce and safeguard the wealth of others?

Ojih Odutola’s portraits suggest that this proposition isn’t merely a matter of mise-en-scène, a situating of a subject amid a host of signifying possessions. Nor is it simply an inversion in which the expected white sitter is replaced by a black one. Rather, her work demands understanding of the ways in which black bodies might inhabit such spaces. Gesture, posture, and a kind of tactile relationship to domestic interiors and material objects become important ways of communicating black protagonists in possession of their surroundings and themselves.

In Afternoon Tea, a bespectacled, informally dressed woman relaxes in a red chair, an opulent gold tea set in front of her. Immediately adjacent is A Grand Inheritance, in which a young man reclines with his leg thrown over the arm of a wingback chair whose ruby color matches that of his velvet slippers. Throughout, Ojih Odutola’s attention to the body in repose—characterized variously by slackness of posture, the casual folds of stylish clothes, an open shirt or a loosened tie—works to visualize a blackness that is neither spectacular nor performing a politics of respectability, one that is not concerned with who’s watching. Through historical portraiture’s often rigid compositions, artists and their patrons conspired to idealize sitters and confer notions of depth and value eagerly consumed by complicit audiences. That Ojih Odutola’s subjects often appear explicitly not to be posing doesn’t reveal the “truth” of black subjects so much as it winks at the socially constructed and racially arbitrary value implicit within portraiture itself. “A Matter of Fact” at once mobilizes the conventions of portraiture and highlights the fictions that undergird them.

As a show, “A Matter of Fact” might come across as an embarrassment of riches. The narratives are so densely layered within each portrait and across the tightly spaced exhibition that the editing of one or two pieces might have made the show feel less overwhelming. But this is a minor criticism. Perhaps most exciting, “A Matter of Fact” allows us to witness an artist testing new ideas and stretching her craft, testing and stretching the boundaries of blackness in the process.

Leigh Raiford