Figuring Afro-Fantasy: Black Bodies Beyond the Barriers of Postcolonial Narratives in Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Portraiture

by Mary Ma, Barnard College

 

Entering into Toyin Ojih Odutola’s solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum, To Wander Determined, is like entering into a simultaneous reality from a parallel universe. Framed by a fictional narrative the artist has created, the exhibition presents portraits of members from two Nigerian aristocratic families, brought together by the marriage of their respective sons. Encompassing multiple storylines, the narrative challenges notions of ownership, sexuality, wealth, and family within the African diaspora. Ojih Odutola, who was born in Nigeria and moved to the United States at a young age, has personal experiences that pave the foundation for her reimagination of the African narrative, incorporated with issues and discussions prevalent to African-American communities today. Exploring the ownership of black bodies in a fictional space that is without the consequences of colonialism, Ojih Odutola presents an imaginative and expansive narrative, unapologetically embracing the existence of her characters beyond the confines of history and time.

Ojih Odutola’s works reinvent the tradition of portraiture through a non-Eurocentric perspective, by incorporating styles and techniques from the Western canon with unconventional subjects, as she creates a space on her canvas for bodies that have been ignored by traditional narratives. The series begins with a reflection on family and wealth and evolves into an exploration of bodies in ambiguous spaces. In a workshop that Ojih Odutola conducted with students from Barnard College, she discussed one of the main questions that she attempts to answer in her works: “when people talk about black bodies and historically oppressed bodies, they don’t think about choice. What would’ve happened if no one interfered?”¹ She answers this question through creating an Afrocentric historical timeline, a multi-dimensional timeline presented in the form of portraiture. The many layers of her series are portrayed through the multiple storylines centered around the lives of the characters. Though complex, these stories and characters are all presented in a matter-of-fact, unapologetic manner. For example, Representatives of State, the opening work of the exhibition, prepares the viewer to be on equal grounds as the characters. The work depicts four female politicians, each of different complexion and style, posing nonchalantly together. Their gazes confront the viewer at eye level, and the viewer becomes immediately drawn into their world. Bringing the viewer onto an equal plane, the characters share their own narrative with the viewer. Following the opening work, each portrait in the exhibition offers a glimpse into a layer of the narrative by bringing the viewer into a new dimension. Every detail and composition within these portraits are purposefully exhibited as clues of this new dimension waiting to be observed, expressing certain sensibilities, whether majestic, vulnerable, undiscerning, or melancholic.

Takeaways from this series are nonsingular, and Ojih Odutola is relying on the subjectivity of the viewer to diversify interpretations of her work. On the one hand, the characters are comfortable in their own skin and their surrounding spaces, presented with confidence and self-ownership in their portraits. On the other hand, the clues and details of these portraits provide a space for individual interpretation, bringing plurality to the meaning of the works. This interaction between the works and the audience facilitates a crossover between fiction and reality. Ojih Odutola’s objective to explore the ownership of black bodies, wealth, and family then becomes a constant exchange and dialogue between fiction and reality, where the viewer can use the narrative as a tool to reflect upon and compare their own experiences.

 

Toyin Ojih Odutola: To Wander Determined is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art from October 20, 2017–February 25, 2018.


NOTES

1. Toyin Ojih Odutola, Whitney Exhibition Workshop at Barnard College, New York, NY, November 18, 2017.

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