Looking at Toyin Ojih Odutola’s exhibition To Wander Determined at the Whitney Museum I think of George Steiner’s encapsulation of Ariel, the last collection of poems by Sylvia Plath. He said: “They are … proof of the capacity of poetry to give to reality the greater permanence of the imagined.” It feels right to apply this description to Ojih Odutola’s visually enthralling drawings. Both artists construct entirely invented worlds that are meant to live and have resonance for the reader or viewer in ways that our own documented histories often fail to.
Ojih Odutola’s drawings, made of charcoal, pastel, pencil, and (in some cases) graphite are mostly portraits that aspire to give our social, economic, and cultural interrelated realities something that is — yes — of potential greater durability. She has developed an origin story: a prelapsarian tale that re-presents a world in which people of wine-dark skin have (in Ojih Odutola’s own testimony available via the Whitney’s website) wealth and travel. In her conception of this world its inhabitants never fell — not from divine grace, not from political autonomy, and certainly not from self-regard.
This aplomb can be seen clearly in her “Newlyweds on Holiday” (2016), which depicts two black men facing the viewer with nonchalant swagger. In her reimagined worlds we — that is, people of the African Diaspora — have dynasties, have comfort and ease and self-possession. One can see that disposition, that unhurried, slightly indulgent pose in most of the subjects. They occupy a world that very much belongs to them and their presence is so fully realized that as soon as one enters the ground floor gallery of the Whitney one knows that some sociopolitical crucial axes have shifted.
It’s easy to enter Ojih Odutola’s world, being seduced by her rendering. The skin, which is now a kind of trademark of her practice, is molten. It seems to be in motion, with the higher-value highlights winking in and out of sight like the dappling of a summer sun glimpsed through leaves that move with the wind. The gaze in each face is serenely endless, but the skin is always unsettled, and this technique works because skin being alive imparts the impression of breath inhabiting it. The origin story is a crucial imaginative tool to wield to move past and through the privations one has to endure being black in the US now.
The only limitation in this is that Ojih Odutola has constructed a narrative around aristocratic families; thus she proposes that personal wealth is the essential foundation for social esteem and self-possession. That is a routine and conventional narrative that I suspect isn’t the entire story. Character and self-regard may also require a kind of education in empathy — the ability to recognize in others that the fulfillment of their needs are just as crucial to them as the meeting of our own. As our political authorities demonstrate with disappointing consistency, personal affluence does not necessarily foster a generous or fair-minded worldview. Still, Ojih Odutola’s world is exquisite and one in which I would like to live.
Toyin Ojih Odutola: To Wander Determined continues at the Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street, Meatpacking District, Manhattan) through February 25.