TOYIN OJIH ODUTOLA (B. 1985)
TOYIN OJIH ODUTOLA (B. 1985)
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TOYIN OJIH ODUTOLA (B. 1985)

Within this dark channel (all you could see was what she could give you)

Details
TOYIN OJIH ODUTOLA (B. 1985)
Within this dark channel (all you could see was what she could give you)
acrylic, pastel, charcoal, metallic ink and graphite on paper
76 3⁄4 x 42 in. (194.9 x 106.7 cm.)
Executed in 2016.
Provenance
Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner

Brought to you by

Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis Senior Vice President, Senior Specialist, Head of 21st Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

Nigerian-born, New York-based artist Toyin Ojih Odutola has carved a space all her own that incorporates art, text, and storytelling. Her spectacular Within this dark channel (all you could see was what she could give you) (2016) is scaled like a monumental painting at over six feet by three-and-a-half feet, yet it is more squarely a masterpiece of draughtsmanship, constituted by painstakingly detailed and time consuming marks of pastel and pencil on paper. Just as she turns her works into larger-than-life scenes, so too does Ojih Odutola gives life to stories of mythical, filmic scale from small dramas. Though we cannot know what exactly is on the protagonist’s mind in Within this dark channel (all you could see was what she could give you), Ojih Odutola’s dramatic and skilled staging evince its transcendent importance. Telling queer, feminist, and Black stories, she is a narrator and a worldbuilder, generously taking us with her as she enters dream after dream of her own making. Ojih Odutola’s work is held in esteemed public collections around the world, like the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the National Portrait Gallery, London, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Her recent solo exhibition Toyin Ojih Odutola: A Countervailing Theory was mounted at the Barbican Center in London and travelled to the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Denmark. Toyin Ojih Odutola: To Wander Determined, her 2017 solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, opened to widespread acclaim.

Like Caspar David Friedrich’s heroic Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818), Ojih Odutola’s magnetic drawing depicts a figure with her back turned to us, deep in a private world to which we necessarily only have partial access. Her white tank top, orange pants, and subtle gold necklace are offset by a sea of pulsating, muscular darkness. She stands up to her calves in water, and that water is contiguous with the night, creating a seamless montage of sky and ground. Ojih Odutola’s detailed and careful marks in Within this dark channel (all you could see was what she could give you) generate a landscape that seems effortless and dreamlike. The protagonist is not afraid, nor is she alone in the namesake dark channel, since the artist always asks us to step into the story.

Ojih Odutola, above all, thinks about the empathy and identification that stories can offer, allowing hope to shine forth from the darkness. She seeks to revise history, as with her work based on a tale of a queer, aristocratic Nigerian family, and she could just as easily be categorized as a writer, poet, or historian. As Cassie Packard argues, “The fundamental gaps in our understanding of others’ experiences—regardless of the quality of our communicative tools or the capaciousness of our empathy—lie at the heart of these open-ended narratives” (C. Packard, “Critics’ Picks: Toyin Ojih Odutola at Jack Shainman Gallery,” Artforum, n.d.). Ojid Odutola seeks to allow that gap to close, while still necessitating opacity, difference, and solitude.

Ojih Odutola’s inspirations are numerous, from Dutch designer Iris van Herpen, to comic books and films, to her artist colleagues Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Julie Mehretu. She distills the world around her and the vastness of culture into the stuff of legend, and in her universe, there is unending empathy and love. As the iconic Black writer Zadie Smith writes of Ojih Odutola, “Here love is radical—between women, between men, between women and men, between human and nonhuman—because it forces us into a fuller recognition of the other” (Z. Smith, “Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Visions of Power,” The New Yorker, August 17, 2020). Inherent to Within this dark channel (all you could see was what she could give you) is a love between the protagonist and the dark landscape that intimately cradles her, just as Ojih Odutola herself cradles her stories and media in her deft hands.

In Within this dark channel (all you could see was what she could give you), all that we can see is what Ojih Odutola has given us, and she gives us a vision of a breathtaking world that is adjacent to ours. As the artist explains, “The viewer is immersed in the narrative, an alternative reality” (T. Ojih Odutola, quoted in O. Can Yerebakan, “There is No Story That is Not True: An Interview with Toyin Ojih Odutola,” The Paris Review, September 27, 2018). Yet there is no escapism here. Each of Ojih Odutola’s realities is a micro- or macrocosm of our present, empowering us to conjure dreams that translate the mundane into the epic. Like Octavia Butler and other canonical science fiction writers, Ojih Odutola finds the wondrous within each of us.

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