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‘Mark-Making As a Land Your Eyes Traverse’: Toyin Ojih Odutola Talks with Zadie Smith

 

 

Zadie Smith (left) and Toyin Ojih Odutola.

COURTESY THE DRAWING CENTER, NEW YORK

On Monday night at the Drawing Center in New York, a full house congregated for a talk between Nigerian portraitist and draftswoman Toyin Ojih Odutola and famed Caribbean-British writer Zadie Smith. The former is one of three artists in the Drawing Center’s current exhibition “For Opacity,” while the latter reviewed the artist’s recent Whitney Museum solo show for British Vogue. Both were assembled on the occasion of a group exhibit whose title alludes to Édouard Glissant, a theorist who advocated for the value of being opaque and believed that “the oppressed can and should be allowed to exist as different and unassimilated.”

Toyin Ojih Odutola Paris Apartment, 2016-17.

CHARCOAL, PASTEL AND PENCIL ON PAPER, 59 3/8″ x 42″, DEAN COLLECTION, COURTESY THE DRAWING CENTER, NEW YORK

Smith, wearing all black beneath a red head wrap and lipstick, engaged Ojih Odutola, whose small afro was free and parted on the side, with a quote from the artist in the show’s catalogue—“What I’m really asking myself is: how can I make the eyes dance?” Smith began by projecting an image of Ojih Odutola’s portrait Paris Apartment (2016-17), in which a dark-brown-skinned woman sits looking out at the viewer in a dizzyingly patterned top and elegant jewelry, with an embellished handbag in the background under old picture frames and an ashtray. “Parisian chic,” Smith called it, before saying, “I can tell you about what I see, and then we can talk about about how I’m wrong.” The audience laughed. “Oh, you’re never wrong,” Ojih Odutola said, making clear that “there’s no wrong way to read a piece.”

Smith compared the picture to Van Gogh: “All marks are in some sense equal. The eye moves fluidly from material to fabric to this topography underneath. It’s like a block to objectification.” In response, Ojih Odutola said, “I see mark-making as a land your eyes traverse through. That’s what drew me to art-making in the first place. It wasn’t about this flat matte surface.”

She fell in love with the tactility of pen ink early in her career, she said, and the expansion of her portraits to include surrounding additions of objects made sense only if she could replicate the same tactility she achieved in renderings of her subjects’ skin. She found the answers in charcoal and pastel, with which she began adding reflective surfaces, sections of distant landscapes, walls, shadows, and what she called “ridiculous patterns”—additional layers in the works that seem to belong, without question.

Toyin Ojih Odutola, Taking Chances, 2017.

CHARCOAL, PASTEL, AND PENCIL ON PAPER, 24″ x 19″, PRIVATE COLLECTION, COURTESY THE DRAWING CENTER, NEW YORK

Ojih Odutola talked about unquestionability in regard to her art and the world beyond. In 2016, during Donald Trump’s rise, she said she saw his wealth as a dystopic key to a kind of unquestionability that immigrants do not enjoy. “Immigrants are questioned constantly and have to make themselves small,” she said. Diasporic people of color cannot take up space, she suggested, but her portraits’ subjects defy this smallness—especially in the context of mundane, common settings “so that you can stop thinking it’s a black person.”

In Taking Chances, a work from 2017, a light-skinned black man with freckles, a fro, and a goatee takes a drag from a cigarette (“sorry, mama,” Ojih Odutola said) and looks away. He is dressed casually in white and orange, with breezy trees behind a window pane. “The beauty and the reality of blackness is multi-tonality,” the artist said. “What chalk pastel provided was that option [to] combine different colors to create these skin tones. With this character, I started to test out the material. And yeah, he’s sexy, for real.” Smith agreed: “Yes, he is fine.”

Ojih Odutola said she worked hard to get the subject’s gesture down. “There’s this nonchalance. A lot of that has to do with occupying space,” she said. “If you’re looking upon a person who does not care what you think of them, who is not there to entertain you, who couldn’t care less if you are there looking at them—it takes a lot to build a picture into that.” Smith responded, in light of such a sense of interiority, “See, there you are talking like a novelist.”

Toyin Ojih Odutola, The Many Ways To Work It Out, 2017.

CHARCOAL, PASTEL, AND PENCIL ON PAPER, 40″ x 30″, COLLECTION OF DRS. CARLOS GARCIA-VELEZ AND W. KENT DAVIC, CHAPEL HILL, NC, COURTESY THE DRAWING CENTER, NEW YORK

When the image behind her changed to her self-portrait The Many Ways To Work it Out (2017), Ojih Odutola said the allure of the selfie can be found in “the enhancement of what we believe to be our true self, or what we want to portray. In this moment I looked raggedy, but I felt so good. I wanted to show a very satisfied black woman.” Smith called it “a very unusual image in the culture—this kind of ultimate pleasure.”

The artist talked about drawing white people, too—as in Somebody’s Heroine (2015), which features a woman with paper-white skin and hair pulled fine and smooth into a bun. “I thought, How do I make that whiteness ‘other,’ so that it’s no longer a black mark on a white ground but the other way around.”

Her series of pen-and-ink drawings “The Treatment” focuses on prominent white men drawn with black skin. When Smith said she might recognize some of the subjects, Ojih Odutola said, with a sinister laugh, “I’m only doing this once—I’m going to reveal . . .” (One of the men, she said, is Tom Cruise.)

With every drawing, Ojih Odutola said she wants to invite viewers to contemplate the layers of story and presentation in front of them. “My art takes work,” she said. “I told my mom that people have to do yoga moves to see it—to adjust themselves to me instead of the other way around.”

This article was written by cool news network.

 

 

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