Toyin Ojih Odutola Uses Art To Challenge Invented Constructs Of The Self

And emphasizes “being alone and working on yourself”

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Through her immersive art, Toyin Ojih Odutola enables viewers to break down the borders of a body. The 32-year-old visual artist was originally born in Ife, Nigeria, where she was raised in an intellectual community and "surrounded by teachers, scientists, and the like"—her father earned his doctorate in chemistry in the U.S. so he could become a professor while her mother was an English teacher and later went on to work as a neonatal nurse. Ojih Odutola and her family moved to U.S. when she was five and after relocating several times, eventually settled in Alabama.

During all of this constant displacement, Ojih Odutola turned to drawing as a coping mechanism. Over time, it transformed into an "investigative, learning activity." For a while, she wanted to become an animator—she loved "the graphic nature of the lines, the stylized variations of age-old tales, the many iterations and repetitions amalgamating into this form that was instantly recognizable and accessible, yet thoroughly complex and meticulous." 

Ojih Odutola's parents enrolled her in fine art courses at school so she could get a proper education on the subject, but she was initially dismissive because she was more concerned with graphic, illustrative styles. Eventually, she realized that it was possible to translate "abstract thoughts into imagined form beyond the limitations of reality" within the discipline as well.

"When I was a kid I truly didn't want to be an artist, even as art making was increasingly an activity I loved partaking in, as well as viewing different types of art making, which brought me much joy, obsession, and relief," she says. "I think this was because I was afraid pursuing a vocation in the world of art was not something that could support a family, and what I always yearned for was some respite for my parents who I would often witness do back-breaking work just to support our family."

Despite her concerns, Odutola would go on to earn her B.A. from the University of Alabama in Huntsville and her MFA from California College of the Arts in San Francisco. At this current time, her solo exhibit, "A Matter of Fact," is on view at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. Ojih Odutola describes it as "a culmination of various interests that I have been tinkering with over the years: ideas of wealth and status, and the various manifestations of prescribed and invented constructs of self." One of the standout pieces from the exhibit is "Selective Histories," which further examines the concept of being invested in the outward expressions of identities.

Learn more about Ojih Odutola colorful background in the interview, below. 

How has your Nigerian heritage shaped the person you are today?

"Growing up in a Nigerian household was an formidable education for me. I learned that regardless of one’s inclination or desire, nothing replaces hard work. I remember my father returning from work late every night, exhausted, but happy to see us, and my mother waking up at dawn to prepare for 12-hour shifts at the hospital. They taught me so much about sacrifice, but they also taught me the importance of making your work your own and never having to pin your frustrations with that work on anyone but yourself. It is your life and, thusly, you should take responsibility for what you want out of it. It’s something I hold tightly onto today. 

"The best gift I received from growing up in a Nigerian house and, by in large, the community, was the beauty, magic, and energizing spirit of storytelling. Whenever I look back fondly at my childhood, I think of all the moments when we would gather together with family and friends and tell stories to one another—and often there was laughter. That soundtrack stays with me, even when my parents remind me that the environs weren’t exactly ideal: 'Don’t you remember? We lived in that tiny, dingy apartment, in that shabby old building?' They will ask. I will often just look at them in bewilderment, because the way my parents raised us, it was like our living room and kitchen were the center of another world suspended in time, where we created our own stories beyond what was readily available to us."

What steps did you take to develop your craft professionally?

"As I approached my high school graduation, I was terrified to realize that despite my efforts, art making became something I was not only skilled at but really wanted to do in my heart. When I finally confessed to my parents that I planned to pursue art as a degree in university, they were very perturbed, but mindful. They wanted to make sure that if this was where I wanted to set the course, I needed to understand the gravity of what I was undertaking. They instilled in me that I would have to work twice as hard if not more to achieve some of the benefits and securities that are automatically attached to other professions. I could never take anything for granted for I was embarking on something completely unknown to them and would essentially be on my own. I admit, I was afraid, but I am so grateful now for their honesty, because that was exactly what I needed to push for it more than I would if I felt like there was a safety net to catch me if I ever failed. I studied studio art as an undergraduate, with a minor in communications at UAHuntsville, and then went on to pursue my master’s in drawing and painting at CCA."

What was your undergraduate experience like?

"As an undergraduate, I sometimes floundered, had my ebbs and flows, experiencing many failures and some small advances. There were times when I doubted whether I was up to the task, the responsibility. I was figuring things out and, luckily, that was the perfect time to do it. Upon graduation, I felt I needed a break, a year, if possible, to test out whether I could proceed to the next step of postgraduate study in art. I worked various jobs, got fired, was dumped, was couch surfing—all the while feeling like I had no idea what it was I truly wanted. I had no money and had to move back in with my parents. I found leftover sheets of drawing paper and tools from my old studio in my room and started drawing alone. I didn't share it with anyone for fear they might not understand. I was re-learning why I loved the act of drawing and not so much the final product/object that came from the drawing. I slowly began to understand what I actually enjoyed in the figuring-out part as opposed to the evidence that remained from the activity. 

"After creating a small batch that could possibly comprise a series, I put them up on my bedroom wall and sat with them for some time, critiquing and editing them every day for months. After some time had passed, I mustered up the courage to apply for graduate school with those drawings. I had no idea what I was in for, or whether I would even get accepted to any of the schools in which I applied. All I could understand was that I saw something in these new works that was different from my undergraduate efforts, something that I felt was mine alone."

What motivated you after graduate school?

"Many years later, the only thing I can say that has held me in good stead and has kept me going was the search for improving my work, the willingness to learn new skills and applications, the need to be proven wrong time and again in order to take that information and transform it. If you are constantly feeling like you have something to fall back on, you will never push forward. You have to be willing to risk and to risk some more in a way that teaches you how to be better not simply for the sake of it. To be able to help my family now through my work is the greatest gift in the world to me. I take great pride in it and much joy. I never would have imagined that my work would take me where I am today, but I will be forever grateful for it. In so doing, I always aim to push it beyond what others or even I can see it possibly becoming."

What topics or issues do you try to convey through your work?

"It shifts from series to series. Usually the conceptual framework comes from researching other movements and ideas that I find interesting or am simply curious about understanding better. I’m very much interested in investigating form—how it shifts and how it molds. The morphology that develops from testing out varying applications, creating a visual language that eventually becomes a part of your methodology. There is something inherent in the process of making, the mercurial aspect of it, that is slightly addictive. You are constantly wanting to answer a question, and with every iteration, every bit of progress, brings about another question and then another. There is a brilliant James Baldwin quote I always keep in mind on what is at the heart of any creative endeavor: “To expose the question the answer hides.” I feel that is truly what I am getting at in the studio: how to make something that is so familiar seem foreign. This can be achieved in a variety of ways both formally and conceptually. When I first began exhibiting my work, I didn't understand how to verbalize this. I was constantly thrust into spaces that were convenient at the time. I thought that by assuming a role it would be easier for others to read my work, but it was exactly the opposite. It simplified me and it simplified my work. 

"This style that I am known for is a visual language I developed as an undergraduate, something I sort of stumbled upon. And now I have spent the last 12 years trying to figure out why I stumbled upon it in the first place and how far I can push the perimeters of this style: What happens when I restrict it with materials and palette? What happens when I get maximalist with the scope, scale, and color of it? The genre I prefer to experiment in with these forms is the portrait, but to limit my work to just a depiction of myself and the people I know is to make the work small. I’m interested in how the form exists in a composition and what happens when you isolate a figure whose body feels like a landscape. Then, what happens when you crowd the same figure with an unusual setting? How do people see the form? How do they interpret it? What sorts of questions arise, what sorts of feelings? From there a series can expand and shift, depending on what is in the line of research at any given time."

During this difficult period of social injustice, activists are also calling on artists to create. What keeps you inspired to continue practicing your craft?

"What consistently keeps me inspired is other art, and other artists. I love researching past and contemporary works—learning what I can from them with each series I am tackling. To me the best education comes from history, for if you really want to create something original it involves combining and/or reconfiguring elements that have come before in ways people have not yet seen. During difficult times, I gather much solace in Toni Morrison’s amazing statement, made while in conversation with Farah Jasmine Griffin at the 92Y in New York in 2015, where she talks about how to get through when you feel you cannot be creative and you feel you cannot find the motivation. She says: “You have to do your work, because that is the job of evil to keep us from doing our work... This is the time when artists go to work—not when everything is all right, not when it looks sunny, it’s when everything is hard. When you think of all those people who [created] when they were in prison, in gulags, under duress—they were doing it!” I think of that notion often and apply it as best I can in these times. There are many ways to practice dissent and to act out against oppression. It doesn’t always have to be literal."

What do you do when you hit a creative block?

"Whenever I feel like it is too hard to create, when the energy and motivation aren’t there, I take a breather. I take a break. I don’t try to force anything. So, if someone were to ask me to be political simply for the sake of it—without intention, without proper thought—I take a step back to reconsider, to take the time before rushing into an idea that I don’t fully understand. In short, I go to work in my own way. I think that’s for the best. I like to work incrementally, and I understand that not everyone has a quick answer to problems, or even an answer at all. In the act of working, I am practicing my own political act and I’m learning; I choose not to compare what I am doing with the acts of others. The fact that I am still working, still taking risks, still figuring things out is something I savor more than anything, because what my work brings for me is the freedom to investigate ideas and express that in my drawings and that is something not everyone has the luxury of doing."

Can you further elaborate on this 



"That tweet was written in solidarity with the Women’s March that happened worldwide on January 21. I wanted to express pride in what was happening and how seminal this moment was in our time. It was an amazing gesture, but it was also a reflective point for many of us. If anything, I hoped for the message to inspire and to show that even a delayed cognizance of self does not mean it is any lesser than one that arrived earlier. What I am interested in most is how to become a better person through it all and that comes from paying attention and listening to people—not listening only to wait for your turn to speak—to actually try and understand a situation and ruminate on it. I have my impatient moments like the rest of them, but I often find that when I am still and contemplative, trying to give time to what is going on around me, it helps considerably. I do not feel confident enough to give proper advice on this matter because I am still learning, but what I can say from experience is that through the struggles comes knowledge and I think it is through knowledge that we come to better understand who we are as people."

What have been some of the highlights of your career so far?

"There are two moments I can think of—they both involve my parents. My parents have and always will be my heroes and the standard with which I live my life. I often think of them when I am working and how best to do right by them. So, the first moment would have to be seeing their reactions to my work showing in my first ever New York solo exhibition at my art dealer’s, Jack Shainman's, space in Chelsea. When I first told them of the show, I was still in graduate school, and it must have sounded like something out of another world. But the moment they arrived and stepped through the gallery to see their daughter’s work, it was something special. My father, especially, started welling up. He couldn’t believe this was his child’s artwork on the walls. I’ll never forget that feeling of pride emanating from them as it was also the beginning of my career as an artist professionally. There was so much possibility looking ahead—neither they nor I could have imagined what was to come. 

"Fast forward to the second moment, which came last year, when I got the email from the head curator of drawings and prints from the Museum of Modern Art in New York informing me that the department had just purchased my drawing, 'The Raven,' from 2016, and would now include the work in its permanent collection. To say I was floored is an understatement. I was completely out of body. I recalled telling my parents as an undergraduate, when they asked me why I wanted to continue pursuing my art making, that I wanted them to see a major museum in this country house an Ojih Odutola work and display it on their wall and that they would know our story and they will remember our names. When I phoned my parents upon receiving the news, my mother burst into tears and my father was utterly flabbergasted. It almost didn't seem real. To claim that space on the walls of such a renowned, global institution as MoMA was something none of us could truly fathom and take in, even though we had wished for it many years before; but I had to remind them that it was what they taught me all those years before, that if I truly wanted to do this, I had to put in that work and truly believe in the work I was doing despite all the voices saying otherwise. Right now, what I feel is the same as I did embarking on my studies in university: There is so much more to come and I am just getting started."

What are you hoping to accomplish as a creative?

"I used to believe that success was only defined by certain acquisitions, a specific stack of achievements that would manifest in very bombast ways; I think we all believe that in our respective fields. This need to constantly show what we have done, to have something to perform for others. I honestly thought that if I achieved all the trappings of a glamourous-looking life then I had truly arrived and acquired all the things that everyone would recognize as 'successful'” I learned rather recently that is not what it is about and not why I get up in the morning to head to the studio. There are so many different kinds of success and to only be concerned with a materialistic kind of success can be debilitating and unhealthy. There is this notion of happiness which I think can become dangerous for it assumes that the form it takes must be of a certain kind of happiness and it too involves a performance. I often find that happiness and success can be quiet, private experiences and moments."

What is one piece of advice that you would you give to a younger version of yourself?

"There are times when you feel you should pay attention to things that others may deem important, but in fact are really harmful to you. You may feel it is expected of you to participate in activities and ideas that seem present and of the times when in actually they are detrimental and distracting. It’s hard to turn away from that—doing things for want of attention, instead of doing and thinking of what is right, good, and selfless. I think there is a lot of attention made to earn validation in some immediate and boastful way—to exert the need to be seen in a certain light, constantly, that who you are and what you do or maybe what you like is important and secured in someone else’s eyes. The truth I have learned over the years is how little that validation brings any good to one’s self-care, which comes from being alone and working on yourself and what you love—alone. 

"Figuring things out is a constant state of work and it helps you better understand the world you inhabit and how best to navigate through it. It is also in that alone space where you actually stop worrying about yourself, you stop nitpicking at what you are and what you are incapable or capable of doing. You just try: trying things out and failing then trying to understand those failures. It shouldn't matter what gets validated—what people may or may not see—what is paramount is whether what you do and who you are are fine irregardless of approval or ratings outside of you. The moment you put something out into the public forum which you firmly believe in and love, you will be able to distinguish between constructive criticism and the projections of fear that come your way from that courageous act. It takes time, but never doubt that it is impossible to get there. 

"Success takes many forms, there is no standard definition, no staid blueprint. Each of us has to define it for ourselves and, most likely, it’s something far more intimate and personal than something you have to share publicly and all the time."