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Odutola in A Countervailing Theory Of Women Kingdom


From commercial art, the artist Toyin Ojih Odutola is pushing her work into the critical space. Barbican Centre’s Gallery, London, was where she showed recently in her first-ever UK exhibition.

Titled, A Countervailing Theory, the show, which opened on Tuesday, August 11, and ended August 30, 2020. The announcement for the show came barely one month after Portrait Gallery, London, said Odutola had been commissioned to do author Zadie Smith’s portrait.


Odutola’s debut solo show, titled, To Wander Determined, was at Whitney Museum, New York, in 2017.

For the Barbican, Odutola explored “ancient myth, with an immersive soundscape by another artist, Peter Adjaye.” The show was supported by Arts Council England and U.S-based Jack Shainman Gallery.

Barbican Gallery, in a statement, explained how Odutola recognised the pen as a ‘writing tool first’, and played with the idea that drawing could be a form of storytelling.

With materials such as pastel and charcoal, Odutola, according to Barbican, “approaches her process of drawing as an investigative practice.”

Odutola brought a part of her Nigerian heritage into her A Countervailing Theory exhibition just as she did with To Wander Determined.


In the New York show, the artist created stories from a three-chapter tale involving two fictional Nigerian aristocratic families, who were united through their children’s marriage.

A view of the exhibition revealed how the space-specific show at Barbican interrogated Odutola’s crafting skill. Her narrative is set in central Nigeria. The theme “depicts a society dominated by female rulers and served by male labourers,” the gallery said. “It is an exploration of social hierarchies and the consequences of transgressing power dynamics.”

Indeed, the artist’s story of a people governed by women is similar to Yoruba mythology of ‘Ilu-binrin’ (a state either controlled or dominated by women). Whatever was the true story about ‘Ilubinrin’ (pronounced ‘Iloobeenreen’), the possible remnant of such a state, having existed before, is still in Lagos, Nigeria’s leading business and commercial hub. A section of Victoria Island is known as Ilubirin. The slight difference in pronunciation is the ‘n’ before ‘rin’, which either confirmed it has nothing to do with the Ilu-binrin mythology or perhaps could be linked to corrupted intonation over the centuries.

From being century-old vast settlements in the past to homes for low-income earners, over the decades in the 20th century, Ilubirin is currently being developed into the choice estate by the Lagos State government.


“Walking into The Curve for the first time was an enchanting experience of having space unfold as you travel through it, not quite knowing what will come around the corner,” stated Odutola. “The feeling of possibility it provides to create and exhibit a story one can meander through in real-time gifted so much promise in how to engage with an audience.”

The artist noted that the opportunity to experience a new project with the Barbican in London came with “a huge honour,” the feeling of the enchantment of which she couldn’t wait to share with visitors when the show opened. “I hope in the process of experiencing A Countervailing Theory, one finds new ways of engaging with The Curve space, with eclectic forms of storytelling, and all the potential art-making gifts us.”

Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts, was delighted that Barbican commissioned Odutola to make a new body of work for the centre’s free programme of Curve installations. She recalled that the show was put on hold as the UK lockdown started. “And now, thankfully, we are finally able to introduce this epic work to audiences in the Centre, as well as creating a video tour of the exhibition for those unable to attend in person.” Alison explained, “Odutola’s engagement with space as a canvas for her expansive narratives will undoubtedly be a revelation for many.”


Excerpts from Barbican Centre’s curatorial statement: “Odutola proposes speculative fictions, inviting the viewer to enter her vision of an uncannily familiar yet fantastical world. Working as an author or poet, she often spends months creating extensive imaginary narratives, which play out through a series of works to suggest a structure of episodes or chapters. Drawing on an eclectic range of references, from ancient history to popular culture to contemporary politics, Odutola encourages the viewer to piece together the fragments of the stories that she presents.”

Barbican explained that the exhibition is produced in collaboration with Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Aalborg, Denmark, and Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, USA.

“Ojih Odutola spent more than eight months researching and developing the narrative for A Countervailing Theory before starting to create the series. Add in a delay due to the coronavirus pandemic, and we can say this exhibition will definitely have been worth waiting for,” Barbican disclosed.


The Portrait Gallery expected that later in the year, the Smith painting will go on public display in the Brent Museum and Archive, specifically, in the area of Northwest London where the author grew up. The display comes as part of Brent 2020, London Borough of Culture. Smith, author of ‘White Teeth’ was quoted saying Odutola’s “art will have a tremendous effect on young people.” The novelist noted that being a woman “it’s had a tremendous effect on me.”

She added: “Becoming familiar with her images is like having something I missed and wanted in childhood delivered to me now, as an adult. ”

Born in Ile-Ife, Osun State, in 1985, Odutola moved with her family to San Francisco and then Alabama as a five-year-old child.

Currently living and working in New York, she earned her BA from the University of Alabama in Huntsville and MFA from California College of the Arts in San Francisco. As her works have been shown in select spaces across the US, Brazil, South Africa, and Italy, admirers and collectors include musician Solange Knowles and actor Russell Tovey.


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