MY COUNTRY HAS NO NAME
It is the story that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is the escort, without it we are blind. – Chinua Achebe.
After 9/11, Nigerian-born artist Toyin Odutola noticed a shift starting in American society. Odutola’s perception was that the American spirit, once symbolized as a melting pot, changed; in her eyes it became a pressure cooker. “I remember as a teenager feeling pressured to be a certain way, to be very American and I knew that didn’t make sense. I was like a lot of people — a combination of two very divergent cultures,” Odutola recalls.
Odutola was born in Ife, a town in southwestern Nigeria with a history of bronze, stone and terracotta sculpture production dating back to antiquity. Her name, Oluwatoyin (shortened to Toyin) means praise God or God is worthy of praise in Yoruba. “My Dad says that I severed God and I’m just 'praise.' It has been a long standing family joke since I was a little kid,” says the 28-year-old artist.
Her family moved to Huntsville, Alabama when she was nine years old. Although Huntsville is predominantly conservative, her family found space in multiple communities where they could thrive. Huntsville’s sizable Nigerian population provided a sense of community. There was also church and for Toyin, arts clubs and an eclectic group of friends. “Huntsville is very much an engineering and military town, not a town you come to for the arts, but being in Huntsville helped me. Being in a place where everyone was so logical and practical, something snapped. I realized I did not want to be that type of person and gravitated towards the arts and out-of-the-box ideas.”
While she was in middle school, Toyin, for the first time realized that she was black and “foreign” because she was told so to her face. “Before that, being black and African was just part of the cornucopia of what made me and I was treated based on my performance. But when I moved to Alabama, I realized my performance no longer mattered because my skin suddenly spoke for me. I realized it would impact how people treated and responded to me and that continued into my adulthood.”
Navigating the tween and teen realms is already challenging under the best circumstances but for Odutola, it was also an experience of being “flattened” into a preconceived notion of who she was presumed to be. “Nothing affects a person more than living in a space where you’re a minority,” she says.
“You want to talk about identity politics, go to a middle school lunchroom. Your identity is your only capital. I struggled with the idea of what I had to assimilate to, which group to join in, and what would make it acceptable for me to move through this new culture. These ideas of otherness and segmenting people seemed very important at that age. It starts really young with children. Then you come into some consciousness and realize ‘I’m more than this flattened portrayal of myself’.”
As an dark-skinned African woman, Odutola also has experienced intra-racial bias. Growing up, she was annoyed by black people’s color hang-ups and their “Yo Mama so dark jokes.” It seemed to her to be self-destructive. “It was like, you’re making fun of me but you’re really making fun of yourself. I didn’t internalize it, I always questioned it.”
Odutola studied at the University of Alabama, Huntsville (BA), and the California College of the Arts, San Francisco (MFA). Trying to acclimate herself to the majority and explain her life and culture to others was initially frustrating. She didn’t start feeling the power of identity struggles until college where she began learning about African American woman artists.
One of her instructors at the University of Alabama in Huntsville nominated and encouraged Odutola to enter Yale University’s Norfolk Summer School of Music & Art program. She was the only person from her school to get into the program. While at the California College of the Arts, Odutola met visiting artist Hank Willis Thomas who continues to be a strong and supportive mentor. Odutola cornered him after a lecture and invited him to a studio to review her work. At first he declined but he did come. Impressed by her work, he sent some images of it to Jack Shainman which led to her being represented by the gallery. She had her first show there in 2011 − Toyin Odutola: (MAPS).
My Country Has No Name, an exhibition of Odutola's latest work, was on view at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, from May 16 until June 29, 2013. Her drawings touch upon themes of triple (African, African American and general) consciousness and blurring identities. In exploring the skin of her subjects as a geographical terrain, she traces connotations of blackness. Like the ancient Ife sculptors, Odutola too creates intricate line work and focuses on the face, a traditional style she likes but wasn’t aware of until she began studying at the university level.
Odutola found that visitors to the My Country Has No Name show could relate to the expression of her personal experience with their own feelings of dislocation. “This idea, which people say they can relate to in the show, of floating, or feeling like you’re not really rooted anywhere. It’s something I suspect a lot of people feel, always trying to mark the ground with your presence to show that you have been somewhere. It’s a futile act. You have this feeling that nothing is quite permanent.”
Odutola hit on an existential fact that gave rise to whole schools of philosophy and psychology: how to square the seeming solidness of this self in this moment and place with the recognition that the only constant is change and that we all will die.
“My family has been here for a long time,” Odutola reflects. “I’ve spent more time in America than anywhere else. So in that regard, I shouldn’t feel like I’m in a purgatorial state. Ever since I was a kid, the feeling of being home was a very unsettled feeling. It felt much more exhausting when I was younger.”
As Odutola settles into to a new studio and apartment in New York City, and establishes a professional reputation, she likes being close to museums and a part of a thriving art community. She looks forward to seeing how her work will evolve in a fresh, new setting. She also looks back over her long experience of uprootedness and declares, “Now that I’m older it’s liberating.
She likes that she's not limited or beholden to any one thing. "I don’t completely commit to any one identity and that’s okay. I’m aware of how an identity is invented.” I remember my parents, like a lot of immigrant families, would invent or create a culture here in America that’s almost like an exaggeration of their Nigerian-ness. It was strange to me because it felt like a hyperbole: hearing our parents speak in Yoruba very loudly and boisterously amongst themselves in ways they rarely spoke back home, seemed almost desperate since it was only emphasized in specific functions. I didn’t resent it, I was fascinated by it, but I also didn’t trust it. I felt like it was something they felt they needed to do to feel comforted and to establish something in a new land, a place that did not feel like their own. It wasn’t a bad thing. They needed that illusion. We all do. We try our best to make do with what we have to make our parents feel better, to make ourselves feel better, but it's never authentic enough.”
“Some kids made a lot of effort to learn the dances and their native tongue and others wanted to embrace their American-ness instead. I didn’t feel fully committed to either side. I felt very ambivalent. My mom would probably just say I was a smart mouth.”
“Growing up I would always be quick to tell my mom she was contradicting herself and she would say 'so what.' It’s like the Walt Whitman quote, “So what if I contradict myself. I contradict myself.” It’s fascinating to me when exposing a lie becomes a good thing.”
I AM NOT MY HAIR? I AM MY HAIR?
In the series, All These Garlands Mean Nothing, Odutola explores women’s relationship with their hair. “It really started by accident, I created a portrait of myself with long hair. But [Hurricane] Sandy happened and the work was damaged. The idea was stuck in my head for a long time. The image, it seemed to me was like another person. The concept of it stayed with me and I wanted to ‘talk’ to her,” she explains.
“I started going through Facebook archives and I found cornrows, afros, braids, bleached hair, twists, weaves. Through the drawings I was re-acquainting myself with those personas. I always thought of them that way, as different personas. Every time I finished, I looked at these portraits as different people. All of these personas were like projections. Someone said (upon seeing the completed series in the exhibition) 'oh, they’re all selfies.' But it’s really not about that. It’s about how they are all at odds with one another. It’s like what Romare Bearden once said: ‘They’re all at issue.’ That’s what self-portraits capture, how we’re always at issue with ourselves and our differing personas."
"All the politics of hair was very prevalent thoughout the series. It’s like looking at 14 different people. People who came to the show told me later that they returned home and started going through old pictures of themselves, looking at their old personas. Some conceptions of the malleable self I respect, especially those concerning women's identities. It’s like a survival instinct. We’re changeable for a reason because we don’t want people to pin us down. I think we need to be slightly slippery in society because we can get too complacent in one position or in one stance. It can easily become something that we turn on. We try to freshen it and change things up. I suspect it helps us feel good but as a social tool, it’s effective because it shows the different qualities we can embody and that’s appealing to people. You see it everywhere now in our society's current marketplace, people tend to hyphenate their professions and, ultimately, what they are capable of being: writer-director-natural hair- blogger-fashion designer, chemist, theoretician, psychologist.…"
"Me? I just draw people. I’m ambivalent…. The one thing I really like within my work is contradiction.”
BLACKNESS AT GROUND ZERO
The series, Come Closer: Black Surfaces, Black Grounds, is described as a personal rejection of everything associated with blackness, which Odutola admits is a very complicated work.
"Come Closer was me accepting black as a material, as an aesthetic meaning and a conversation. I used blackboard, black ballpoint pen ink and in some cases, black acrylic ink underneath and as a process I was looking up definitions of blackness and black identity in literal terms. I was reading a lot of Franz Fanon, W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, alongside looking up artists such as Romare Bearden and Charles White with very modern takes on blackness and thinking about it as I was drawing the portraits."
"It was shocking to me how the material aspect took precedence and what it does to overshadow the reality of black identity with its descriptors. 'Flatness,' 'negative space,' 'darkness,' 'mystery,' 'impenetrable,' 'evil,' 'the unknown,'... those were just a few of many words I found describing 'blackness.' I was exploring the Western, linguistic landscape about how blackness was viewed religiously, economically, and politically, on so many levels. And here I was in a basic, concrete way drawing blackness and it expanded my mind. I was reading these definitions, the counter definitions, and the counter stances of those definitions seeing that I’m here in the 21st century creating new works and these words and the context still seeps into it even when I’m trying to remove or distance or emancipate that definition from itself."
"I’m doing black on black on black, trying to make it as layered as possible in the deepness of the blackness to bring it out. I noticed the pen became this incredible tool. The black ballpoint ink on blackboard would become cooper tone and I was like 'wow, this isn’t even black at all!' The black board was like this balancing platform for the ink to become something else. I instantly recognized this notion, of how we think something is a certain way and in relaity it is something else. This goes for individuals as well. What we think we are, we are not, the things that we project aren’t inherently so. The aesthetic of it led me to push it further. It brought me to another question. What happens if you invert the image, like a negative of a photograph? (Gauging Tone, 2013) "This, in turn, led to more inquiries: 'What if you invert the black image and blackness in general, as a tangible, aesthetic thing, what happens?...' "
"I did that for a couple of drawings and it felt like a release for me, if that makes sense. This became a new series. I really love the series Gauging Tone, which was the title of this follow-up series. It was a very personal journey for me to see what I could do with the black image in a very limited but somewhat inventive way and have it not be beholden to something else. The only thing black was the context that surrounded the subjects portrayed, literally the blackboard that theyre drawn on. The images are not black. So the real question was 'when you invert the image does the meaning change?' The answer for me was sometimes 'yes' and sometimes 'no.' It’s terrible…. I went back and forth. It was fascinating to see. Conceptually, it pushed me to explore how aesthetics can be an interesting segue into another dialogue in not just blackness but also perfection and how we tag on certain meanings to things, to people, even to context.”
Black Men, Before You Put On That Sentence, You Are GOLDEN
Particularly among black men in America, Toyin says she noticed an invented attitude:
“I would have these conversations with my brothers and they’d be like 'I am a sentence, that’s all I am and you need to respect that and acknowledge that.' They would be like: 'I already see it, I wake up in the morning, take off my du-rag and I’m good.' They’re totally fine with that. And that fascinated me."
"There’s a portrait in the show of my younger brother naked and he’s sort of pinned down with his knee close to his chest, looking off to the side at the viewer. I was careful to title the piece which is “You Are Enough-- As Is”. I think, so often, especially with my brother, men take on that sentence and push it up to the world. I think it’s exhausting for him, and for many other men, to have that sentence pushed up in front of them, the sentence comes first and then he comes afterwards. He would never admit that to himself or anyone else. The sentence is up there by necessity. It’s like an armor that he puts on and I wanted to shed that armor in the portrait and present him in a very vulnerable way and that’s something that you do not do to Black men. They hate seeing themselves vulnerable, the history of that image, leads to a very dark path for them which is understandable."
"I drew him with a metallic golden Sharpie and he’s literally golden. I told him, upon finishing the portrait: ‘Look at you in this vulnerable state. You’re golden. You are beautiful. You are enough. I respect you and your sentence but before you put on that sentence, this person exists and that person is you. And it’s beautiful.’ I wanted him to know that.”
WE CONTAIN MULTITUDES, RE-IMAGINGING OUR STORY
“There are a lot of pieces like that in the series, “Gauging Tone,” says Odutola.
“One of my favorite pieces is ‘The Story of the Hunt Glorifies No One.’ It’s an homage to Chinua Achebe which goes into more specific things about colonization and the origins of blackness through the plans of colonization. The conceptual idea for the work, of the blackness, came from that history (colonization), because that’s when slavery was justified. The title of the piece is a play on a Chinua Achebe quote from an interview in the Paris Review, where he talked about why it’s so important for him to support the African post-colonial voice, the underdog. He cited a well-known proverb and said, “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. Once I realized that, I had to be a writer. I had to be that historian. It’s not one man’s job. It’s not one person’s job. But it is something we have to do, so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail—the bravery, even, of the lions.” Once I read that quote I thought, ‘of course Chinua, yes, we want to triumph over the hunter’s story that’s always been written.’ But me being the weird, ambivalent artist that I am I think, the problem isn’t so much the hunter or the lion, the problem is the hunt itself. We need to get out of this conversation entirely about this hunt because it seems to cause us problems-not simply for both sides, but for all sides That’s what the series Gauging Tone is all about…the story of the hunt glorifies no one. Even if I invert this image, it doesn’t change the situation. I’ve got to get out of the whole conversation to really get it.”
"Ultimately, the belief in the endless possibilities of a full-fledged person is one that Toyin Odutola wholeheartedly embraces. “I’m interested in invention. I’m interested in how we create all of these things on a whim, like in All These Garlands, —like the Walt Whitman quote, “I contain multitudes”, that’s brave, it’s so powerful."
"When you see my drawings, they are containers, right? The subjects are containers of these multitudes- of marks and landscapes and colors. They’re not real, they are 2-D figures in a picture plane, but what really is going on is those multitudes aren’t grounded in reality at all. When your imagination is aware of that and you willingly take that on, of course you can portray anyone, anything. It’s incredibly freeing as an artist in that way because you don’t feel restricted by any social code, aesthetic rule or formal standard. You can push past that. I love when people describe the drawings as a galaxy or the universe. It’s an incredible observation. That’s exactly where I want to go with this work. That’s something black people have avoided up until very recently and where we need to go.”
To view more of Toyin Odutola’s work visit: www.toyinodutola.com
fayemi shakur is a writer and editor who lives in Newark, NJ. She also works at Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art. She has contributed to numerous publications including HYCIDE, a photography magazine dedicated to subculture and art.