James Baldwin, ‘The Creative Process’, 1962, cited in: Toni Morrison, Ed., James Baldwin: Collected essays, New York 1998, p. 670
Vibrantly rendered in charcoal, pastel and pencil on paper, Selective Histories comes from Toyin Ojih Odutola’s interrogative series from 2016, A Matter of Fact. Exhibited in the year of its creation at the Museum of African Diaspora, San Francisco, this thought-provoking body of work weaves an intricate narrative around the extravagantly opulent, and entirely fictitious, Emeka family of the Nigerian Umutze Amara Clan, in order to probe and question constructs of wealth and race in contemporary society. The resultant eighteen works on paper in A Matter of Fact – simultaneously figments of Ojih Odutola’s imagination, and, in a more nuanced sense, symbols of society at large – flit tantalisingly between fact and fiction, history and myth. They are, as the artist has so poignantly proclaimed, “a band of characters who have always existed and yet never existed” (Toyin Ojih Odutola cited in: ‘A Matter of Fact: Toyin Ojih Odutola’, The Museum of African Diaspora Resource Guide, San Francisco 2016, p. 4).
Selective Histories is one of the standout paintings of the series. Presented from a closely cropped and intriguing perspective, the work depicts a group of ornately framed paintings depicting landscape scenes, portraits, still-lifes, and a large-eyed, Hockney-esque Dachshund who rests sleepily on a striped settee. Hung in the prestigious Salon style, the paintings surround an intricately carved tribal mask. Set against deep vermillion wall paper, the gilded Rococo frames speak to a privileged domestic world of luxury and grandeur. The right hand of an unseen figure positioned beyond the picture plane cuts through the bottom right of the composition: adorned with two glistening rings, its index finger reaches out evocatively towards the cheek of the African mask. Composed in Ojih Odutola’s signature style of feathery marks in black and white, the sensuous black skin of the hand is at once dynamic and volatile. As if imbued with the transmutable fluidity of running water, Ojih Odutola’s approach to the representation of skin offers a compelling metaphor for her own experiences of diaspora and the complexities of assimilation. Born in Ife, Nigeria, in 1985, and raised in Alabama in the United States, Ojih Odutola developed an understanding of selfhood as innately multivalent, multilayered, and ever-changing. “My family and I have constantly been affected by the places we have lived”, she has explained, “and in so doing have adjusted ourselves to every context… This is not something we view as strange anymore, having to change yourself or your nature to mould it into each and every context we find ourselves in” (Toyin Ojih Odutola cited in ‘Toyin Ojih Odutola: Like the Sea’, Jack Shainman Gallery, 2014, online).
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 David Hockney, Lucien Freud, Paula Rego and Lynette Yaidom-Boakye, as well as the great twentieth-century social critic James Baldwin, the current series presents a new artistic direction for the artist. Her previous drawings, rendered predominantly in ballpoint pen, have centred around the monochromatic exploration of blackness – both as colour and concept – as tonal, manifold and diverse. Introducing bold, vibrant colour into her paintings, the artist has expanded her focus to consider and ultimately challenge preconceived notions of race, affluence and, indeed, history itself. “Like Blackness, wealth defines the spaces of those who inhabit it”, she has remarked, “it limits and/or permits movement and readjusts context. Furthermore, like anything involving race and ethnicity, wealth, upon the striated plane of class, is indicative of a history that is invented and constantly reaffirmed to keep the construct going” (Toyin Ojih Odutola cited in: ‘A Matter of Fact: Toyin Ojih Odutola’, op. cit., p. 4). In the fabulist and enthralling world of Selective Histories, Ojih Odutola’s artistic aims are powerfully and provocatively achieved.
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