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Toyin Ojih Odutola: A Countervailing Theory. A World of Fantasy and Reimagined Power

by Jamie Kodera | 30 December 2020

Installation view, Toyin Ojih Odutola, A Countervailing Theory, Barbican, London, 10 Aug 2020 - 24 Jan 2021

I visited Toyin Ojih Odutola’s A Countervailing Theory back in October, anticipating the artist’s first UK exhibition after being awestruck by her Whitney Museum debut, To Wander Determined, in 2018. Known for creating deliciously luminous and textured surfaces, the Nigerian-American artist works almost exclusively in portrait drawing. Her large-scale works comprise a greater narrative when exhibited together. It’s always a treat to see these stories in person and with a curious mind. After viewing A Countervailing Theory at the Barbican Centre, I’m itching to return. Once you enter The Curve gallery, the natural light that floods the Brutalist Barbican is suddenly shuttered out as the doors close behind you. Immediately, you are enveloped by the dim atmosphere; a space for deep contemplation. I was intrigued by the air of mystery that is stimulated by both the dark ambiance and the accompanying soundscape that Ghanaian-British sound artist Peter Adjaye composed in response to Ojih Odutola’s work. On one side of gallery, the walls are painted floor-to-ceiling in incrementally deepening shades of grey. The artists monumental scale black and white drawings occupy the sightlines at different registers, only to disappear behind the bush hammered concrete pillar around which The Curve wraps. It is therefore impossible to view the exhibition in its entirety (forty works total), resulting in a slow, cinematic unfolding of the events depicted. Although the exhibition planning likely commenced months (if not years) prior to the pandemic, the layout of the gallery and the directional progression of the show are conducive to safe movement in our current moment. The wall text at the start of the exhibition defines A Countervailing Theory as the idea of ‘countering an existing power with an equal force’. The notion speaks to Ojih Odutola’s greater practice of reinventing histories and challenging existing narratives through storytelling. In this show, she presents a prehistoric Nigerian civilisation ruled by dominant female-coded figures whilst male-coded labourers work and serve. Homosexuality is compulsory, as the characters are forbidden from forging relationships (sexual or emotional) with the opposite gender. Power structures that we are accustomed to are subverted, but the contrasting dominant social functions are not without their consequences. Nonetheless, the beauty of this radical alternative reality made me long for something different than the norm we know.

Toyin Ojih Odutola, A Parting Gift; Hers and Hers, Only, 2019, Charcoal, pastel and chalk on board

Inspired by the Jos Plateau in central Nigeria, the artist both embraces her cultural heritage and rewrites its past. The richly rendered surfaces of the depicted topography lend it a strong visual appeal. By creating a female dominated society that predates the Nok civilisation, Ojih Odutola proposes a history that feels simultaneously futuristic, with elements of fantasy and mythology at play. Encountering the unfamiliar world begs the questions: What would it look like if women held the power in society? What if homosexuality was the only acceptable relationship dynamic? What if we focused on flourishing black histories at the pinnacle of their independence? Ojih Odutola presents each drawing as a single episode within a greater story, encouraging the viewer to devise their own narrative. For me, seeing same-sex love as standard furthered my desire for queer liberation within our current heteronormative reality. Similarly, images of powerful women dressed in striking armour-like garments left me wanting to embody their boldness. By conveying the story through multiple images, different interpretations are possible. With the room Ojih Odutola leaves for ambiguity and speculation, I was left constructing my own queer fantasy from the narrative. Although my takeaways come from a place of understanding the violence that marginalised people face in our current society, Ojih Odutola urges us to consider the flaws that exist under any oppressive power structure.

Toyin Ojih Odutola, To See and To Know; Future Lovers, 2019, Charcoal, pastel and chalk on board Ojih Odutola ends the exhibition with a striking revelation in writing that reveals her own imagined story (the catalogue also details the characters fate). Nonetheless, the artist’s work demands active participation – not only in deciphering what’s depicted, but in creating our own versions of the story through incorporating our personal experiences. The work then becomes just as much about us (and speaks to our own histories) as it is about the characters that she’s created. Ojih Odutola opens up a world of possibilities when we are left to reconsider how history is told and presented.

Installation view, Toyin Ojih Odutola, A Countervailing Theory, Barbican, London, 10 Aug 2020 - 24 Jan 2021

I encourage you to book a trip to the Barbican Centre once lockdown measures are lifted. A Countervailing Theory is a transformational show like no other drawing exhibition I have seen before. I hope your experience will be unique as you carry your own histories and perceptions into the story, and that it challenges you as much as it serves to please visually.


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