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LONDON – What if the script was flipped and art history was filled with portraits of Black sitters showing off their wealth and power? Throughout her brief but prolific career, Nigerian-American artist Toyin Ojih Odutola has probed this question, creating alternative histories of art which portray imaginary Black figures. Brought to life in pen, pastel, charcoal, and chalk, her characters inhabit opulent interiors and verdant landscapes, dressed in luxury contemporary clothes. They are confident, defiant.
Ojih Odutola’s breakthrough 2017 show at the Whitney Museum, To Wander Determined, depicted the members of two fictional Nigerian dynasties, posing in sumptuous modern-day scenes. In A Countervailing Theory, her current exhibition at the Barbican Centre, Ojih Odutola’s script-flipping takes on a more epic, mythic scale. The show features 40 greyscale drawings which tell the story of an ancient civilization ruled by female warriors (Eshu) and served by male laborers (Koba). The only sanctioned relationships in this “countervailed” universe are same-sex ones.
Like many great stories, it is a tale of forbidden love. Akanke, an Eshu, and Aldo, a Koba, begin an illicit affair and conceive a pair of twins — an act that does not go unpunished. The narrative unfolds cryptically in compositions that recall Titian and Dürer, with stony-faced, glossy-skinned characters set against sublime landscapes which frame and, at times, engulf them. Ojih Odutola’s references are witty and wide-ranging: “Eshu” is the name of the male god of mischief in the Yoruba religion, while “Koba” is a contemporary Nigerian slang word meaning “to betray a friend’s trust”.
Ojih Odutola constantly references the fictionality of her own story. The first drawing, for example, is titled: “Establishing the plot.” After the final drawing, though, there is a twist: a mounted text, signed by Ojih Odutola, describes the accidental finding of a group of Nigerian black shale sheets with “peculiar pictographic markings” which read as an “otherworldly parable.” An archaeological investigation dates the markings to the Indigenous Nok society (c. 1500 BC – c. 500 AD). In a reverse of the it-was-all-a-dream device, the fictional tale is exposed as a reality. The artist becomes archaeologist and the solely-authored artworks become the collective output of anonymous ancient makers.
This revelation is, of course, a secondary fictional layer. But, according to the artist, one inspired by two real sources: an article about rock formations in central Nigeria, showing that they had been meticulously arranged by an ancient civilization, and an episode of the BBC podcast A History of the World in 100 Objects, which discusses a German archaeologist’s discovery of an ancient bronze “Ife Head” in 1910 and his racist refusal to believe that such a beautiful and skillfully made object might have been created by Africans.
Just as it toes the line between fiction and reality, Ojih Odutola’s imagined world is neither a utopia nor a dystopia. It is subject to the same complexities and contradictions as our own; the same structures and hierarchies of power. For Ojih Odutola, who was born in Ife Nigeria and moved to the US at age five — first to Berkeley, California, then to Huntsville, Alabama — the ability to shift from one culture to another, and from exteriority to interiority, comes easily. Ojih Odutola’s stories are never centered or fixed. And therein lies their power.
Toyin Ojih Odutola: A Countervailing Theory continues at the Barbican Centre (Silk Street, London) through January 24, 2021. The exhibition was curated by Lotte Johnson.