Toyin Ojih Odutola’s new exhibition, Tell Me a Story, I Don’t Care If It’s True, is online now
Toyin Ojih Odutola was due to show new work at the Barbican this year in an exhibition entitled A Countervailing Theory. Had the show – Ojih Odutola’s first UK commission – gone ahead at the end of March we’d be in the middle of its run, but like so many institutions, the Barbican was forced to close amid lockdown in London due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It was while the New York-based artist was finalising A Countervailing Theory that she had started work on another series of drawings, eventually created during lockdown, which are now presented by Jack Shainman Gallery in the online exhibition Tell Me A Story, I Don’t Care If It’s True.
For a majority of the drawings in Tell Me A Story, I Don’t Care If It’s True, Ojih Odutola has paired the image with text extracts. Each drawing and each snippet of text tells its own individual story; the artist describes them as vignettes. “The invented stories presented in this series of diptychs and standalone works engage with variables, be they irreverent, painful, humorous, and disturbing – the many facets of life and our attempts to communicate these moments,” Ojih Odutola writes in the exhibition’s accompanying text. “Contexts here are anecdotal: two teenagers rambling before attending a show, a seductive monologue on a train, a woman presenting a lecture, a man questioning his desires, an encounter with a lifeless body. Whatever came to mind, I wrote and drew them out.”
The act of storytelling has long been an integral aspect of Ojih Odutola’s drawings. Previous series have seen the artist weave complex fictions set in Nigeria, where she was born in 1985 and lived until her family moved to the USA in 1990. Her first solo exhibition there was To Wander Determined at the Whitney Museum, New York in October 2017. The drawings – rich and colourful portraits, still lifes and group scenes – traced the stories of two aristocratic Nigerian families, brought together by the marriage of TMH Jideofor Emeka and Temitope Omodele, the former from a family of longstanding nobility, the latter from a family of new money. Their world is an alternate reality – very much imagined since the two men would not be able to marry in Nigeria, where homosexuality is illegal – which Ojih Odutola was immersed in for years. She herself was their Deputy Private Secretary, and wrote the exhibition press releases.
Prior to the Whitney show, a 2016 exhibition entitled A Matter of Fact at the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco also told Omodele and Emeka’s story, as did a further three shows. At the time of the final exhibition focusing on this lyrical, compelling story – When Legends Die at Jack Shainman – Ojih Odutola said: “I’ve been consumed by these characters for three years now and it’s been surreal, humbling and insanely stressful, but also very beautiful and instructive. It’s time to draw it all to a conclusion.”
In her work, Ojih Odutola presents black stories: be they tales of lofty, ancestral families; quieter moments of everyday life; or the worlds of ancient imagined communities (her Barbican installation was just that: “a fictional ancient civilisation in central Nigeria dominated by female rulers and served by male labourers”). Each is highly intricate, and illustrated in her signature graphic style. She deftly explores the multifarious textures of her scenes and characters. “When I look at black skin, I think of it as a mercurial surface – a terrain, a construct, a projection, but also a place where so much beauty and positivity proliferates,” she recently said. “It includes so much and it holds so much.”
The works in Tell Me A Story, I Don’t Care If It’s True were created during the last few months, as the world has suffered a pandemic and countries have momentarily entered states of lockdown. It’s a period of time that has also been defined by protests against racism, which have unfolded globally following the murder of George Floyd at the end of May. “I sincerely hope these works bring you all solace, a moment of respite, and space to ruminate – quietly, steadily,” Ojih Odutola has written on Instagram. “I hope it helps you all gather, to heal, to find the beauty in our fleeting moments despite the pain and trauma, and in the end, some semblance of peace in the midst of this cruel madness.”
Tell Me A Story, I Don’t Care If It’s True is at Jack Shainman Gallery now. 10 per cent of all proceeds from the exhibition will be donated to the Moms 4 Housing collective and the umbrella organisation, NDN Collective Covid-19 Response Project, under the Navajo Nation Relief Fund for First Nations.