Previously on View: Toyin Ojih Odutola

March 31 through September 11, 2022


charcoal pastel and chalk depiction of seated woman with staff at elbowToyin Ojih Odutola (b. Ile-Ife, Nigeria, 1985)
The Listener, 2021
Charcoal, pastel, and chalk on linen over Dibond panel
84 x 50 x 1 3/8 inches
© Toyin Ojih Odutola
Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Ojih Odutola’s The Listener is part of a series of drawings that chronicle a prehistoric civilization envisioned by the artist. Here, the ruling class of queer female warriors, the Eshu, dominate the Koba, a serving class of male laborers. The drawings are presented as remains of this imagined civilization, as printed scans of fragile rock tablets unearthed in an archaeological dig in central Nigeria. In this fictive realm, the traditional relationships codified in historic European art are inverted. Heterosexuality is aberrant, homosexuality is compulsory, and women rule men.

Ojih Odutola’s mythical subject draws attention to Old Master fictions. Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait, for example, is the largest and most magisterial of the artist’s many self-portraits. He appears as if he is enthroned with a scepter-like staff, yet the artist was destitute when he painted it. Seated informally but without conceding authority, her own staff at the crook of her elbow, Ojih Odutola’s subject is from an imagined past. In both works, hands figure prominently—evoking the hands of the artists who applied their media, nearly four centuries apart. The comparison emphasizes the differences of their materials—Rembrandt’s thickly painted oils on canvas versus Ojih Odutola’s drawn charcoal, pastel, and chalk, each leaving their distinctive traces in laboriously applied marks. Through medium and technique, the artists offer disparate approaches to skin, color, form, and shadow. On the black ground of the drawing’s support, the figure in The Listener peers out at the viewer, the force of her sparkling eyes prompting reflection on myth and history, selfhood and identity, and the power and privilege to create one’s own story.

The Listener temporarily takes the place of Rembrandt’s Polish Rider which is currently on loan to the exhibition The King’s Rembrandt at Wawel Castle: The Polish Rider from the Frick Collection in New York at The Wawel Royal Castle – State Art Collection, Krakow.

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[Aimee Ng, Curator]

Toyin Ojih Odutola's monumental drawing, The Listener, engages with the works by Rembrandt in this room. Here is the artist.

[Toyin Ojih Odutola, Artist]

In this room at Frick Madison, two pictures bookend the career of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. From the 1631 commission of Nicolaes Ruts, a merchant of Russian fur trade, to the 1658 fantastical self portrait by which time he was fiscally, legally and personally troubled. They're a true testament to his artistic skill and labor. My contribution, The Listener, a seven foot high, lone androgynous figure, temporarily sits in the place of The Polish Rider amongst them.

The global expansion of Northern Europe contextualizes Rembrandt's works. This perspectival transition literally altered cartographic and ecological landscapes. Ideas around sovereignty of the self shifted cultures towards singular manifestations, further affirmed by the fraternizing of faith with trade. Rembrandt's self-portrait drawings are where I find connection and focus. His manner of rendering, careful in parts, then cavalier. His paintings, however, deal in psychological play, no more evidenced by the one centered here. When exhibited at The Met in 1909, it was described as "the head of an old lion at bay, worn and melancholy, yet conscious of his strength, determined and a little defiant."

Together our juxtaposition might seem odd: there are stark distinctions in the colors of Rembrandt's thick paint to the drawn inverted, chalky economy of mine. Also, the men are occupied: either engaged in sales ledgers, or with the self-possession creative lineage affords. Despite their assertive stances, these pictures force you to reckon with a lonesome power. The staff at the inner elbow leaves the hands of my picture empty. This doesn't imply ceding to or a deference for the other actors present. Power is collaborative.

It's apt Rembrandt's most audacious self portrait would be in the collection of an industrialist. A definition of power for another man to express ownership. Self-image documentation being the immediate marker of time can be an expensive means of taking stock. Rembrandt had a way of capturing himself which allured people who wanted what he saw. Art dealer Charles Carstairs, who aided in Frick's acquisition of the work had this to say in 1906: "It is most powerful, grand, monumental. If only you could see the picture over your mantel, dominating the entire gallery, just as you dominate those you come into contact with...." You could easily believe the confidence of Carstairs's convictions were it not for the look an Rembrandt's face.

Perhaps I should find solace in how Rembrandt and I imagine a past to escape and cloak ourselves into our personal truths? I'd like to believe The Listener holds the same if not more contradictory ideas, pushing farther than comforting tales of lore to another, inclusive plane. Acknowledging we are here, in this costume, is not enough. During my sojourn, I'm thinking about the ways in which we can directly engage in purposeful confrontation and building; how to hold space for multiple perspectives within our vast, evolving world. Choosing to be quiet is its own defiant power, and to let others speak isn't a small courtesy, it's an act of sovereignty.

[Aimee Ng, Curator]

The Listener is part of the year-long project, Living Histories: Queer Views and Old Masters, and is on view through September 11th, 2022.

About the Artist

photo of Toyin Ojih Odutola

Toyin Ojih Odutola (b. Ile-Ife, Nigeria, 1985) is known for works on paper that explore the malleability of identity and possibilities in visual storytelling. Interested in “the topography of skin,” she has a distinctive style of mark making using basic drawing materials, such as pens, pencils, pastels, and charcoal. This technique involves the building up of layers through blending and shading, creating compositions that reinvent and reinterpret the traditions of portraiture. Ojih Odutola credits the development of her style to using pen, which, as a writing tool, links her work to fiction in crafted narratives that unfold through series of artworks like the chapters of a book. Her work is inspired by both art history and popular culture, as well as her own personal history—from her birth in Nigeria to her childhood move to America, where she was raised in conservative Alabama. In more recent series, she has explored depictions of landscapes, architecture, and domestic interiors. Ojih Odutola’s work has been presented in several shows at Jack Shainman Gallery; her first solo museum exhibition in New York, To Wander Determined, was held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2017–18. In late 2020, London’s Barbican Centre presented A Countervailing Theory, which traveled in the spring of 2021 to the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Aalborg, Denmark. The installation is on view at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., through April 3, 2022.

Photo: Beth Wilkinson