by Madeline DeFilippis | 10 January 2021
I believe that the history of art is a form of storytelling.
This is what initially intrigued me about the discipline – by trade, I am a historian. I deduce stories from the past based on anecdotes, archival papers, and other surviving objects. When I began to study art history, visual culture and its history intrigued me. Above all, I am always interested in the stories behind the paintings, the sculptures, the photographs, the media. What was the artist attempting to tell the audience by using their materials, their figures, or their colours?
In the age of digital media, I believe it is more important than ever to remember the stories behind artworks. On Instagram, we only have a small square and a short caption to explain what it is we are looking at, and why we should care. In the gallery, it is a similar story, with caption panels on the walls (and the catalogue if you can afford to buy it). The story is not privileged.
There is a connection between literature and art that must be acknowledged. Although we call them authors versus artists, it is clear that both create stories which appeal to their audiences using various techniques. In the last twenty or so years, Black female artists and authors such as Toyin Ojih Odutola (b. 1985), Bernardine Evaristo (b. 1959), and Zadie Smith (b. 1975) (to name but a few) have been recognised for their enormous talents in just this area. These creatives’ commitment to their unique creative processes has brought them fame in each of their industries.
Toyin Ojih Odutola is incredibly multi-faceted. Her work is intimate, introspective, and has the perfect quality of leaving the viewer wanting more. All of her works coalesce into a powerful narrative, whether it is about the changes in her appearance, a ‘thought-experiment’ about text and image, or her most recent series at the Barbican Centre about a mythical pre-historic civilisation in an alternate reality to ours. She is a friend to Zadie Smith and a portraitist of Smith and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (a personal relationship which reinforces their creative connections). Both Ojih Odutola and Smith have contributed to the catalogue (which was a very affordable £12) which provides an insight into the storytelling behind the exhibition. In 2009, the artist was involved in researching a ‘black shale rock deposit’ in Nigeria which revealed that the Nok, a ‘civilisation predating the oldest civilisation indigenous to the region’, had a pictorial culture. This inspired the artist to create A Countervailing Theory, a series of 40 monochromatic drawings of various sizes which depict the ‘Tale of Akanke and Aldo’, a story which the artist wrote to inform the series. Smith has called Ojih Odutola’s multidisciplinary, multimedia approach a ‘radical vision’. The artist reverses roles of power, putting Black women in the positions of authority and identifying queer relationships as the norm. She also posits that love can be communicated in ways we, burdened by centuries of socio-historical noise, cannot fathom. There are many lessons to take away from this exhibition, about love, race, power, gender, the environment, the past, and the future.
Toyin Ojih Odutola, Sadie (Zadie Smith), 2018-19
In her most recently published work Intimations: Six Essays, Smith provides an insight into her beliefs and the changes to those beliefs following the events of 2020. Like artists who, she says, might believe in the political efficacy of art but struggle to connect with ‘regular’ folk, writers face a similar quandary when attempting to answer the question ‘why do you do what you do?’ Eventually, she realises that there really is no difference in filling time by baking or by writing a novel: both are made with love, but both are also a way to fill the time we all now realise exists. Before the pandemic, we had a different conception of time; now, it is infinite in its monotony. But I would venture to say that this is exactly what connects art and literature, and both with life in general: as cliché as it might sound, love is what connects these things. Of course, we cannot say for sure that all creativity stems from a place of love. Passion, anger, sadness, melancholy, curiosity are all emotions which creatives rely upon for inspiration. However, those who are interested in storytelling are connected by a love which I believe is unique. As Smith says, there are questions about ‘what life is for’ that cannot be answered solely by passing time through various activities, but telling stories is certainly one way to do so which feels purposeful and meaningful.
Bernardine Evaristo’s 2019 Booker-prize-winning novel Girl, Woman, Other is a story about a creative artist – a playwright – telling stories. We experience various narrators in the narrator’s past and present as she works to manage the weighty expectations of a predominately white, heteronormative British society and wider world. The conceptual vision for this novel exemplifies the threads binding together visual and written art. Ultimately, these are stories about some of the most marginalised people in our society: Black women. They are imaginative and unapologetic, and demand to be the main characters in their own story.
So much of our culture (as the pandemic has powerfully demonstrated) relies on connection and communication. Art and literature are uniquely placed to respond to these issues. They are both topical and timeless. They can speak to the individual and the masses, the abstract and the tangible, the mind and the heart. Ojih Odutola’s exhibition at the Barbican Centre is topical, telling a story about a prehistoric civilisation using issues which we debate to this day, including sexism, queer love, and the image of desire. She has created her own narrative to accompany this series and to inform the interested audience member, but the future of the story is up to the viewer, and their creative insight into ideas of race, gender, and love.
What does the man smiling at us have to say? What is the woman looking at as we stare at her profile? All of these are questions we must ask, because a work of art is, at its essence, a story waiting to be told. We have to coax these stories out and finish them ourselves.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, No Need of Speech, 2018. Carnegie Museum of Art.