Tuesday, 4 August 2020

Ojih Odutola creates women's 'kingdom' in UK debut solo

'Establishing the Plot', a drawing from A Countervailing Theory (2019), © Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

In her short period of gradual climb on the commercial art ladder, Nigerian-American artist Toyin Ojih Odutola's interest is not just about counting the digits. She is also pushing her work into the critical appreciation space for broad followership.

Barbican Centre's Gallery, London will be showing Odutola in what has been described as her first-ever UK exhibition, titled

A Countervailing Theory, showing from August, Tuesday 11-Sunday, 23 2020. The announcement was coming barely one month after Portrait Gallery, London disclosed Ojih Odutola's commission of author Zadie Smith's portrait.

Ojih Odutola made her debut solo exhibition titled To Wander Determined at Whitney Museum, New York, in 2017.


For the Barbican, it's about Ojih Odutola exploring "imagined ancient myth, with an immersive soundscape by another artist, Peter Adjaye." The exhibition has been supported by Arts Council England and U.S-based Jack Shainman Gallery.


Barbican Gallery stated on its website how Ojih Odutola recognises the pen as a ‘writing tool first’, and plays with the idea that drawing can be a form of storytelling. With drawing materials such as pastel and charcoal, Ojih Odutola, according to Barbican, "approaches her process of drawing as an investigative practice."


Again, Odutola brings a part of her Nigerian heritage into art exhibition just as she did with To Wander Determined. In the New York show, the artist created stories from which a second of three-chapter tale involves two fictional Nigerian aristocratic families, who were united through their children's marriage.


Preview of A Countervailing Theory explains that the space-specific show at Barbican sees Odutola crafting a narrative set in central Nigeria. The theme depicts "a society dominated by female rulers and served by male labourers," the gallery said. "It is an exploration of social hierarchies and the consequences of transgressing power dynamics."


Indeed, the artist's story of a people governed by women is similar to Yoruba mythology of 'Ilu-biirin,' (a state either controlled or dominated by women). Whatever was the true story about 'Ilu-binrin', (pronounced 'Iloobeenreen'), the fact and remnant of such a state, having existed before, is evidenced in Lagos, Nigeria's leading business and commercial hub. A section of Lagos Island — inbound the mainland part of the city — is known as 'Ilubirin.' The slight difference between the mythological Ilu-binrin and the small settlement in Lagos is the missing 'n' before 'rin'. The difference in spelling either confirm that it has nothing to do with the mythological Ilu-binrin or the pronunciation changed over the ages.. From being centuries-old vast settlements in the past to homes for low income earners, over the decades in the 20th century, Ilubirin is currently being developed into choice estate by the Lagos State Government.


“Walking into The Curve for the first time was an enchanting experience of having a space unfold as you travel through it, not quite knowing what will come around the corner," stated Ojih Odutola. "The feeling of possibility it provides to create and exhibit a story one can meander through in real-time gifted so much promise in how to engage with an audience." The artist noted that the opportunity to experience a new project with the Barbican in London comes with "a huge honour," the feeling of enchantment of which she cannot wait to share with visitors when the show opens. "I hope in the process of experiencing A Countervailing Theory, one finds new ways of engaging with The Curve space, with eclectic forms of storytelling, and all the potential art-making gifts us.”


Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts, was delighted that Barbican commissioned Ojih Odutola to make a new body of work for the centre's free programme of Curve installations. She recalled that the show was put on hold as the UK lockdown started.  "And now, thankfully, we are finally able to introduce this epic work to audiences in the Centre, as well as creating a video tour of the exhibition for those unable to attend in person." Alison explained that "Ojih Odutola’s engagement with the space as a canvas for her expansive narratives will undoubtedly be a revelation for many.”


Excerpts from Barbican Centre's curatorial statement: "Ojih Odutola proposes speculative fictions, inviting the viewer to enter her vision of an uncannily familiar yet fantastical world. Working like an author or poet, she often spends months creating extensive imaginary narratives, which play out through a series of works to suggest a structure of episodes or chapters. Drawing on an eclectic range of references, from ancient history to popular culture to contemporary politics, Ojih Odutola encourages the viewer to piece together the fragments of the stories that she presents."


Barbican explained that the exhibition is produced in collaboration with Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Aalborg, Denmark, and Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, USA.


"Ojih Odutola spent more than eight months researching and developing the narrative for A Countervailing Theory before starting to create the series. Add in a delay due to the coronavirus pandemic, and we can say this exhibition will definitely have been worth waiting for," Barbican disclosed.


The Portrait Gallery expected that later in the year, the Smith painting will go on public display in the Brent Museum and Archive, specifically, in the area of north-west London where the author grew up.The display comes as part of Brent 2020, London Borough of Culture. Smith, author of 'White Teeth' was quoted saying Odutola's "art will have a tremendous effect on young people." The novelist noted that being a woman "it's had a tremendous effect on me." She added: "Becoming familiar with her images is like having something I missed and wanted in childhood delivered to me now, as an adult." She stressed that being "a Toyin creation myself, on the walls of the Portrait Gallery? It's incredible. I still can't quite believe it."


Ojih Odutola, b. 1985, in Ile-Ife, Osun State, Nigeria, moved with her family to San Francisco and then Alabama as a 5-year-old child.

Currently living and working in New York, she earned her BA from the University of Alabama in Huntsville and MFA from California College of the Arts in San Francisco. As her works have been shown in select spaces across the US, Brazil, South Africa and Italy, admirers and collectors include musician Solange Knowles and actor Russell Tovey.
 -Tajudeen Sowole.

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