Interview: Toyin Ojih Odutola

Toyin Ojih Odutola is all about inclusion. Whether it is placing her maternal lineage in the middle of her signature or cleverly placing a mirror to the viewer’s socio-cultural ideals, as they stare at her works, in her current exhibition “Of Context and Without.” Wise beyond her years, and very needed at this time, Toyin spoke with Saint Heron on the mercuriality of humans becoming, the fluidity of the term identity and the perception of Blackness.

Tanekeya Word [TW]: The documentation of process has always been a dominant concept in your art-making. In The Object is the Technique + The Technique is the Object, 2015, you have decided to allow the first layer of your process to be seen as the final marks. Why?

Toyin Ojih Odutola [TOO]: For this show, “Of Context and Without,” I wanted to expose process, as in the process of a read—be it a person, a thing, or a situation. It wasn’t only in the marker pieces, such as The Object is the Technique + The Technique is the Object, 2015, but in the charcoal, pen ink, and pencil works in the show as well. I’ve been interested in this notion that the completed end-product can be misleading, because to see something as “done” assumes a one-dimensionality. By intentionally by-passing that final, finished layer, what is revealed is not an incompleteness, but rather an evolving state. Thusly, to apply this to the arena of portraiture, you see that the work isn’t about a subject or a person, specifically, at all, but about the makings of a person, the makings of an idea. That was what I was getting at, and that is what I’ve often shared in my documentation of process in the past, only in this case, I’m not attempting to capture these stages of making for posterity or even for educational purposes. I wanted to leave something in this “undone” state to see what it would mean. I’m still trying to figure it out—and that is so refreshing! To have a body of work that eludes definition or rather anything definitive. Being an artist with a very specific identity—Black, Woman—there is often this need to sweep it over, to make a decisive point and move on (I’m not speaking simply of my own desires, but the social implications in this as well). It’s an exhausting exercise and an exhausting experience. So, what happens when you present yourself, in-process, as a portrait (speaking of The Object is the Technique + The Technique is the Object, 2015, again)? What does it mean when the read isn’t as definitive and instead is multifaceted and nebulous, even mercurial? That is what I wanted to explore and emphasize with the works in “Of Context and Without.”

[TW]: In your exploration of race and identity, is the process of layers and markings in your work a path to navigate the metanarratives associated with people, to excavate the character behind the person instead of just the perception of the monolithic body, whether it is a black body, a woman, a man?

[TOO]: In some way or form, I’ve always wanted to reveal the lie of the monolith with my drawings. From my very first solo exhibition with Jack Shainman, titled “(MAPS),” 2011, to my last exhibition, “Like the Sea,” 2014, each iteration has been a means of emphasizing the unreliability of the singular portrait packed with “readymade” attributes. I’ve always been suspicious of an exacting persona, even when I’ve tried to achieve it in myself. It’s not like I’m exposing anything new or revolutionary. What I am doing with my drawings is playing with this shaky idea that you, me, and everybody else can only be one thing and will always be one thing. Identity, as a word, frustrates me, because its very purpose is to limit possibilities, to limit capabilities. You cannot limit something that is changeable: as human beings, of nature, we are by default changeable. It’s the most reliable thing about us, our mercurialness, next in line to our forgetfulness. In sum, I want to express how there will never be one answer to anything or anyone. So I build upon that, literally with the marks I make, to expose the lie of the monolith and, ultimately, to expose the lie we believe in some way or another, within ourselves.

Changing Circumstances- Changing Attitudes

[TW]: The quote seen in your latest exhibition, Of Context and Without press release states, “In art theory, the line orders and controls while color is pure freedom and emotion,” the statement immediately made me think of our present day socio-cultural and socio-political order in the United States. Lines are implicitly drawn to create social order, but depending on the context or perception it could be considered that the lines are elusive when it comes to the freedom of the black body and the emotions society has pertaining to it. How would you contextualize or perceive the rhetoric used in this particular art theoretical statement, in relation to present day socio-cultural and socio-political happenings?

[TOO]: The vulnerability of minority bodies makes plain how the societal delineations that we constantly live by are false and, of course, it’s always about control. I like to play with the dynamic, of our knowledge of these lines, because sometimes it feels like they are invisible, or made difficult to pin-point. The irony is that we all know they exist and they are meant to push and pull us to whichever dynamics are convenient for the powers in place. But what an exciting moment when we expose these lines and everyone sees how misleading and unhealthy the partitions made on and by us are? As an artist, I have always looked at art-making as a means to not simply play with the rhetoric, but to play with perceptions. You can stand in one space all your life and feel like that space is all there is and all the other spaces around you are out of reach or too foreign to venture into. My job is to get you out of that confined space to another vantage point. It’s amazing what happens when we travel to another “locale,” how our perceptions of the world change immediately, just by shifting our purview by a few degrees. As a kid, I grew up with the shade of “recent immigrant” as my space. That space came with many restrictions as well as allowances; however, I often felt like I could never be more that what was allotted to me and my family in that very specified, and inhibiting territory. It wasn’t until I became a US citizen in adulthood that I realized what it meant to shift somewhat more freely and to actually feel the privileges that weren’t available to me (or even acknowledged by me) when I was a child. To take it a step further, living in this Black body all my life, I felt there were margins I couldn’t quite cross, spaces I wasn’t welcome into, &c.—this found its way into my earlier works a few years ago. The moment I dared to mess with those delineations, even when I was scared to do so, I was exposed to the illusions in place that I internalized and it was so freeing to see…possibility. To feel like I could invent and roam in a terrain that wasn’t already demarcated for or prescribed to me by someone else, or society at large. In the end, what I seek as an artist is what I seek in life, to expand in order to move about more freely, without the fear of retraction.

[TW]: The Treatment, 2015 is a series of drawings that challenges the viewer’s ideologies and how easy or how difficult it may be to “resist categorization,” when the images confuse the physical and social political identities that they have grown to accept or deny based on skin color. The Treatment, in return becomes a social case study, utilizing visual culture. I am reminded of Brer Rabbit and the trickster trope when reading these particular images. When you were asked why you only drew people of the African Diaspora, your response to the question was this body of work. What if anything were you signifying in this series?

[TOO]: Blackness as a construct is a negation, it instantly obfuscates and devalues who and whatever is washed over by it. It denies complexity and in turn denies explanation. In essence, it flattens. This is not an aesthetic read, this connotes the socio-political as well. We have tried to reclaim it, to give it power with such beauty, eloquence and strength, but the truth is that those who don Blackness do not do so by choice, nor were we ever the creators of this construct. I am attracted to Blackness as a concept because I want to usurp it. I see within it a multitude of reads. I understand how it is complicit in creating frustrating impenetrability however it is presented—as a tool, as a marker—but I also can see how it can be utilized for play. Because I so often work with it as a material (i.e. in material and concept), I try to expand it as well as create tension within it. I hope to unearth the contradictions inherent in it. As it is with so many other things created by human beings, there is bound to be complications regardless of how we try to rationalize Blackness. For me, “The Treatment,” as a series in its entirety, was an attempt to play the jester, but also to attack a perception that continues to confound me personally. The moment I landed in this country, I was Black. That happened, just like that. And all the history and associations attached to that Blackness were laid upon me. At first, as a young person, I thought it strange and unsettling, because obviously, I am brown-skinned in tone, but even as a kid I realized what that Blackness meant: what it did to control how I moved about the world and how my actions and words would be defined. The puzzlement led to my wanting to “treat” it differently. And when the premise of the group exhibition, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” curated by Hank Willis Thomas, was introduced to me, I immediately thought: “I have played with this platform on Black figures as an arena for me to explore my issues with Blackness as a construct, but rarely, if ever, have I devoted an entire body of work to Whiteness in this same method?” What would that mean? What would it bring out of me and my methodology as a whole? I won’t deny it, I did approach the series with trepidation, but I was also excited about what the series would mean to me on a personal level. This idea that Blackness is so specified and thusly often excluded, when in fact, Blackness is the most inclusive of colors (and, by extension, concept). It is the Whiteness, in opposition, that is impenetrable, that avoids and becomes exclusive by it’s very quality. These constructs confound one other and the problem no longer felt over-simplified, it started to become multilayered—and that is what really excited me enough to proceed.

Accoutrements or Your Accent Travels With You

[TW]: 2016 is approaching. What five things have you taken from your experiences in 2015 that will anchor you to stay focused and encouraged in the coming year?


1. To travel extensively is the greatest gift, even if it’s only a few miles from your locale. The moment you leave the space you are comfortable inhabiting, you come to face your real self in different situations, and it is so revealing, humbling, arresting and beautiful.

2. Experimenting with one’s work is a necessity. It’s not about pushing oneself for the sake of it only, rather, its about tackling the things you are most afraid of —acknowledging the fear and proceeding. It’s the fear that instructs and from there so much can happen. It’s the catalyst.

3. Thank goodness for music–no matter the genre. There have been so many nights that wouldn’t have been as productive if not for a soundtrack to keep me going, to motivate, to inspire. I’m so thankful for it.

4. I am so grateful to my family and all my friends for their support this year. 2015 has been full of so much (and it’s not even over), but without those people so dear around me, it would all be for naught. I am so indebted to everyone. I truly am.

5. Confidence. One thing I learned this year more than anything else is to be more confident in myself as a person. In the past, I often felt that what I did, my art-making, is what defined me and all my self worth and significance stood on that. It’s not a healthy outlook. Sometimes you need to escape from what you do (and even who you are attached to) to truly appreciate your purpose. I’m not here to say I know myself completely, but what I’ve discovered this year has allowed me to imagine the possibilities and to understand that my way of seeing the world, my way of being and experiencing it, as well as expressing myself within in–in this body, with this mind–is important on it’s own. And that was really integral to my development towards fulfilled personhood in 2015.

© Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

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