Toyin Odutola: ‘I’m no longer interested in portraying what I think I am in my work’
The artist talks about why she loves pen and ink, where she gets the inspiration for her titles, and why it’s ridiculous to think being African, black and a woman should define her work
by A WILL BROWN
Toyin Odutola, who was born in Nigeria in 1985 and brought up in Alabama, is an artist who works primarily in drawing. Her working materials have expanded from pen and ink into a rich visual palette to include marker pen, India and acrylic ink, watercolour, charcoal, pastel, lithography crayon, coloured pencil and wood stain on paper, board and wood panel.
A Will Brown: I remember when, at graduate school at California College of the Arts, you were being pushed to expand your medium and materials beyond drawing with pen and ink. I also remember your steadfast commitment to those materials, and continue to see it in your work, with meaningful experiments and variation. What was it about your specific materials that were, and are, so important to you?
Toyin Odutola: The materials inform the style, or language, I use to articulate the subjects I create. Often in grad school, it was suggested that I experiment, but the impetus to experiment always put me off. I don’t mind expansion so much now – never have – but I need a foundation, or something to orbit around. It grants the work and me some certainty, which is still tentative when it comes to art-making. The pen ink tool was how I started, it was the location I spawned all this from, so to break from that, which I eventually did for a while last year, was scary, but also liberating. Of course, some things were lost – the quality of the line, for instance, was a little different. It’s not about it being better or worse, just different. However, the translation of what I’ve been trying to evoke remains constant.
AWB: How has your approach to drawing changed over the past year, as you have become not only more successful but have had far more people seeing and engaging with your work?
TO: It’s been daunting and inspiring. I’m always surprised that people have seen my work – truly – because most of my time is spent alone, working. It’s nice to talk to people about the work and what they see. You cannot always tell how a work will be read, and it’s incredibly informative. My approach has changed, mainly in how I compose the drawings. Thinking more macrocosmically helps. I’m not so burdened by what, or who, I am any more, which is incredibly freeing. You start to think about narrative more, forming sentences in people’s minds that are outside your own experiences and filter. It’s been enlightening. Of course, I’m always there: I mean, I make these things, after all. But I’m no longer interested in portraying what I think I am in my work. I, like these drawings, am constantly changing, too.
AWB: What is the core of what you are conveying in your work? What kinds of ideas or emotions would you like someone to walk away feeling, or thinking about, after engaging with your work?
TO: Too various to mention, really. In the past, there have been three tenets. First, the concept of the portrait as a platform for a place – a landscape, if you will – for people to find a “home” in, or a “history”; second, the skin as an access point to read as a story or a letter; and third, that the act of creating a subject – any subject – is multifaceted in the making and the read. You can see one thing or another, but the abstraction is the key, which I hope creates a dynamic, a tension. It’s not about capturing someone as they are, or were, but more like speaking another language and dialect within, and of, a person, place or thing.
AWB: What are some things that you would like to see change in the way artists are exhibited, valued, treated and discovered? What are the biggest challenges you face as an artist?
TO: Because I was born in Nigeria, or that I am a woman, doesn’t necessarily mean that is all my work is about. Or worse, just because I am regarded as African or black, a woman … female, doesn’t mean my work should be limited in this regard. When I begin to work on any project, the truth is there. It’s me making it, of course. But I don’t consciously think every time: “OK, how can I express my blackness or womanliness today?” That’s ridiculous, and completely beside the point. So, why constantly ask artists to think that way about their work in response? I remember speaking with a fellow artist about our mutual admiration for Lucian Freud’s paintings. Throughout his long and prolific career, never had someone asked Freud what it felt like to be a “Jewish immigrant in Britain”, or “Why he rarely drew subjects of colour”. Why? Because it’s ridiculous. So why are people constantly asking other artists these questions? The fact is, as an artist, we want to expand viewers’ imaginations, to make them see, instead of lazily looking. If you are coming to the work only with ideas you wish to confirm, then you are missing the point. Yes, I am a seen as a black woman, but if that is all my work can ever be, or the sole purview in which my work is categorised and understood, then what’s the point? It’s exhausting and it’s reductive.
AWB: What do you look at on a daily basis for source material, or for shaping your ideas or methods – magazines, exhibitions, blogs, films?
TO: Everything. Seriously, everything. You can find source material from anywhere, anyone and anything. I’m not being glib here, I swear. It comes from everything. In fact, the more random, the better.
AWB: I would like to talk about a few specific works. Can you tell me a bit more about the Birmingham, Studyseries of works from 2014?
TO: Birmingham, Study was made into two different sets of works: one as a print suite lithograph (triptych), the other as three separate drawings on Mylar. The initial idea was to draw the subject from a series of reference photographs I took in Birmingham. I wanted to draw him, and that was it. But current events in 2014 caused me to question what a subject’s image meant, and how it was applied to certain spaces. To be sure, a lot of the works I made in 2014 were dealing with how the black male body is seen in various spaces. This notion that we have, in America at least, that “black bodies” could only occupy few, specific locations and frames in order to feel authentic was problematic to me. It all boiled down to consumption, or rather, how we, as a society, accept and consume the black image. That the black image is only profitable in certain spaces – within the realm of entertainment or sports, for instance – was offputting, to say the least. But if you ask any child below the age of 13 what their view of “black” or “blackness” is, or what it means, you will hear how limited that image actually is.
I wanted to play with that restrictive notion, but also play with it as a material – literally tools. So, the prints were done first, in collaboration with the printmakers at the Tamarind Institute. Then the Birmingham, Study drawings were done in lithography crayon, coloured pencil and marker on semi-opaque, Mylar sheets. These drawings were, for me, more instructive. The thickness of the lithography crayon rendered the skin, in the style in which I drew it, nearly sculptural, not relief-like, which is how my drawings normally look. The subject was slightly raised off the page. The shadow created by the coloured pencil only added to this effect. And having the subject on a surface that was clear, made it seem like he hovered – so he was within and without – regardless of the background. In sum, you could place him anywhere just by moving the drawing around. The subject was the constant, or rather the frame, in which the world entered. He could exist in any space. It was no longer what he could bring to a space, or rather how he could make the space easier to consume. Ironically, it’s hard to tell all this when you see these drawings framed or online, but it’s about how the work was while I was making it and that informed me the most.
AWB: I’m also interested in how titling changes your work. There is a lot in your titles. Perhaps you can walk me through the work When The Witnesses Are Gone (2013), and explain the title, what the work is about, and how the introduction of such a vibrant yet balanced blue garment is significant here?
TO: One of my graduate professors, Taravat Talepasand, gave me the best advice about titles. Until taking her course, I’d shied away from titling my works, which caused a lot of confusion. There’s only so much you can convey with “Untitled” pieces everywhere. I naively thought that, by not creating a conceptual framework in which these drawings could exist, I was freeing them from a striated interpretation, which they already had enough of. I wanted to keep my ideas to myself, partially because they weren’t fully formed ideas to begin with. I was self-doubtful about what I wanted to say and how to say it. To translate the nonverbal to something that could be communicated within a finite language was beyond me. Talepasand wasn’t buying this at all. She told me I was doing the work a disservice by refusing to title them because, instead of creating a space for them to roam, I was, in fact, simply creating a blank space for anyone approaching the work to fill in his/her own ideas. I was surrendering them to the mercy of whatever, and whoever, they encountered. Initially, that sounded rather interesting, but I later understood how that could be frustrating for me. For if I had any ideas at all while working on these drawings, they would be lost, and she educated me on how much control an artist has over her work and how much she can let go. Titles are the key to that control. There is always ambiguity, that’s sort of the beauty of it, and I like the idea of someone seeing something in my drawings that I didn’t see in the making of them. However, I was weary of the application of someone’s preconceived notions to my work, labelling the works as something factual in their minds that these drawings never were, and could not be.
This idea of “representation” is problematic, and so the titles I began choosing since then have been glimmers, not representations, but specific enough in their placement. They stem from a variety of sources, mostly ideas that come up while I am working on the drawings: things I hear while I’m working from the radio, or from a programme I’m streaming online; a book I’m reading – anything that’s in the orbit. When The Witnesses Are Gone is a line lifted from a song that was playing on my computer. The song’s meaning or story has nothing to do with the work. But that line stuck with me the moment I heard it. To me, it encapsulated what the drawing felt like to me at the time. This notion of turning one’s back away from the viewer to conceal something or, inversely, of waiting for the right moment to turn around and reveal the action depicted in the drawing is an in between one. I like playing with that.
When The Witnesses Are Gone was part of this “avatar” series that I was working on late into 2013. It was one of the first three experiments with the charcoal and pastel materials. I wanted to see if the vibrancy of the lines I made with pen ink could be translated into these dry media. The effect was a bit matted, somewhat flattened, but the colour contrasts were interesting to me. Looking back on the drawing now, I see so many narratives, but I still like the title. It’s not saying much, but it’s a bit poetic and romantic, and I see that in the work. What it means to me, or anyone else, will change. And I like to think that the title will change with it.
AWB: When did you start making gif works, and how do you see that taking shape in the future?
TO: I’ve always been fascinated with gifs – they are these mini-films that you can replay over and over. Even excerpts from films or other media that have been incorporated into gifs are fascinating because, once they are taken out of context, their meaning changes. I’m interested in that idea, but I didn't start making them from my drawings until graduate school. I love making gifs because they are inherently self-contained. You don’t need to know anything about where they come from, or what they reference, you just experience them as they are. Some have cultural significance, and allude to things more esoteric (such as memes), but as an artform they are intriguing. They are as blank a slate as you can get when it comes to presenting them as an artwork. You can create anything. You can incorporate anything. And anyone who comes into the work, no matter who they are, where they are from, or what they believe, have their own reading of it and they take that with them. Right now, it seems the primary audience is through technology/hardware – computers, tablets, phones – but I’m interested in projection and video. I plan on expanding this and incorporating them into my love for animation in the future.
AWB: The works And You Emerged, Curved and New (2013-14) are incredibly powerful and subtle. What brought you to the subject of transitioning bodies; what was important about these works for you?
TO: It’s an incredibly brave thing to create oneself out of nothing, or rather, out of what a society thinks is a “site” deemed inappropriate or wrong. To arise from that as you are, more as you are, is to combat not only the external worlds, but one’s own internal struggles. The conflation of that into a singular body representation is beyond difficult; it’s like coming out of battle. The body is key here. Within the body is so much more. We all know this, but the transitioning body is simplified. I wanted to reveal the persons who have always been there, within and on the body, but for a variety of reasons are repressed or oppressed. My work deals with skin and the body as an access point, but with the series And You Emerged, Curved and New, I wanted the body to be a kind of armour. I’m not thinking of words such as “damaged” here, because that’s not what it’s about. As I mentioned before, I see the portrait as a place. These drawings are about seeing these transitioning bodies as a location in which people have created, or recreated, to be more of themselves in, to exist in, to be at home in, to love themselves and to act from – in sum, the starting point, not simply the access point. I find it brave and poignant, the act of doing that, and respect it immensely.
AWB: You are the subject of your own work at times. How has self-portraiture developed for you? What is important about it? It seems to allow you a flexibility and alternate existence as a subject matter and a creator simultaneously. I find these portraits compelling, particularly as your works are so detailed and visually rich, and, at times, depict real, raw, vulnerability.
TO: Funnily enough, I hardly did any self-portraits last year . I’ve kind of moved on from it for the time being. However, I love the idea of a self-portrait as a psychological exploration (Rembrandt), as well as an escape from the material into the more abstract and internal (Frida Kahlo). Many of the earlier drawings I did were predominantly self-portraits because I made them prior to, and during, graduate school. There was no one else there. Especially when you are in graduate school, it’s the most selfish time, you become your most self-absorbed. You cannot help but constantly be self-referential. After the solo show My Country Has No Name [which opened in May 2013 at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York], I looked at my self-portraits differently. I was starting to see a narrative take shape around those drawings. It was no longer a psychological endeavour; it became indicative of something else, something to do with being a woman, or being African, or some kind of socio-economic condition. Whether it was or wasn’t mine, it didn’t matter. I was the representative. And that was stifling. So, I started doing other portraits, or, if I did use my likeness in some capacity, it was as an “avatar” for someone or something else. It wasn’t me. It was never me, really. It was an idea. How that translates visually, depends on the materials, the colour, the composition – but the idea varies. Now, I’m not so bothered by the reads of these drawings; they exist on their own and have something to offer and, yes, it’s me, but there are layers to them, as in the layers that formed them aesthetically. I can’t deny that.
AWB: Are you working on any new bodies of work now? Do you have any new materials or mediums coming to the fore?
TO: There’s always an interest to translate this style into a work using various materials, so it’s a constant in my studio to experiment with what a drawing tool can be. So, I cannot be specific, but I can say, yes, there’s definitely some tinkering going on.
AWB: Have you seen any great exhibitions or shows recently? What has stuck with you in the past year or two from the art that you’ve seen around you?
TO:Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s show, The Love Within, at the Jack Shainman Gallery in December 2014. What an arresting show! Her work always drives at the heart of things we cannot voice, and her craftsmanship is inimitable and powerful, sophisticated yet subtle. I admire her and her paintings so much. Every time I see one of them in person, it leaves an indelible mark.