Executed in 2017, Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Compound Leaf presents an intricately rendered self-portrait in charcoal, soft pastel hues, and pencil on paper. The artist has portrayed herself in an unknowable, even generic setting: light floods in through large windows, yet its strong glare prevents the viewer from seeing beyond them; two framed paintings hang on the wall, yet their contents are blank and tell no story. In the centre of this scene is the artist herself, composed in her signature style of feathery, dappled marks, which imbue both her skin and clothing with a dreamy and volatile fluidity. The artist’s tattoo of a leaf, from which the title takes its name, is subtly visible on her neck as if blooming from within her. This elusive sense of dynamism and transmutability is central to the artist’s work, and indeed her approach to the representation of skin and fabric offers a compelling metaphor for her own experiences of diaspora and the complexities of assimilation. At once political and poetic, her visual language powerfully explores notions of identity and belonging.
Born in Ife, Nigeria, in 1985, and raised in Alabama in the United States, Ojih Odutola developed an understanding of selfhood as innately multivalent, multi-layered, and ever-changing. “The style I employ for the skin is riddled with tensions inherent in the mark-making… for the skin is a bit of a puzzle I’m trying to solve”, the artist has stated. “When I am drawing the skin, I am mapping out a territory, which seems familiar to me but is always strange and foreign whenever I engage with it. So, I am discovering it as I am drawing out the figure. The tensions that arise and reveal themselves become so in the process of the making, and I love how every skin layer is different from character to character – even if I’m the only one who can see this” (Toyin Ojih Odutola cited in: Exh. Cat., New York, The Drawing Center, For Opacity: Elijah Burgher, Toyin Ojih Odutola, and Nathaniel Mary Quinn, 2018, p. 48). Compound Leaf was shown at The Drawing Center, New York, in 2018-19, in an exhibition entitled For Opacity, which took its name from a 1990 essay by the Martinique-born and Paris-educated theorist Édouard Glissant. He wrote: “Agree not merely to the right to difference but… agree also to the right to opacity” (Édouard Glissant, ibid., p. 11). Indeed, turned away from the viewer in an inscrutable setting, Ojih Odutola poignantly portrays herself as an intangible, ungraspable presence.
Ojih Odutola has received outstanding critical acclaim in recent years, and 2017 saw her first solo-exhibition in New York at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Influenced by artists such as John Singer Sargent, Lucian Freud, Paula Rego, and Lynette Yaidom-Boakye, her recent work presents a new artistic direction. Introducing bold, vibrant colour into her works, the artist has expanded her focus to consider and ultimately challenge preconceived notions of history and race. In the artist’s own words: “I am not this narrative that has been written about me, flattened and archetypal, I am my own person, a land that I now wish to take back. Here, I will show you. Do not omit me or render me invisible… I am here, I will not be erased or smudged out. I am as vast and wondrous as the night sky” (Toyin Ojih Odutola, ibid., p. 19).
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