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Toyin Ojih Odutola: Redefining Trans-mutability

Toyin Ojih Odutola

A couple of months ago, Toyin Ojih Odutola’s name was everywhere in the Nigerian media for selling a drawing for £471,000 (about N215 million naira), more than three times the high estimate.

This particular piece called ‘Compound Leaf’ was sold at the Sotheby’ auction and made Toyin the third highest-paid Nigerian artist of all time joining Njideka Akunyili Crosby whose ‘Bush Babes’ painting sold for £3 million and Ben Enwuonwu whose ‘Tutu’ painting went for £1.2 million on the prestigious list.

However, Toyin Ojih Odutola is not a new artist or one who is new to the art community. She has gained a lot of popularity over the years for her pen ink drawings, which question identity in various forms.

She was born in 1985 in Ife and left the country to Berkley, California a couple of years after due to the state of political affairs. At that time, her father, J. Adeola Odutola was undergoing research and teaching chemistry at the University of Berkeley.

It wouldn’t end there as the family would make another move to Alabama where Toyin stuck to art for a lot of things. Alabama was a very Southern state and Toyin was exposed to her dose of racial taunts and bullying for being black.

It is where she found art – her escape in these troubled times. She would take time to draw at all times, telling Vogue Magazine that she was obsessed and captured everything she saw. She goes on to say that she was fascinated with the incredibly simple task of looking at something and transmitting it onto paper.

It also helps that her high school art teacher saw her talent and made her the first student in an advanced art program, introducing her to the work of other black artists and this was the right springboard Toyin needed.

In 2008, she went on to major in Art and Communications at the University of Alabama. Like almost every Nigerian parent, Toyin’s dad and mum had wanted her to go to law school but she won a full scholarship to pursue a Masters of Fine Arts degree at the California College of Arts.

After her Masters, she moved to New York in 2013 and has since been making giant strides. In 2012, Forbes featured her in their list of 30 notable individuals under 30 in the Art and Style category.

In 2018, she was nominated as one of the 21 shortlisted artists for the Future Generation Art Prize for 2019. She was invited to create a tribute portrait of the late singer, songwriter and pianist, Aretha Franklin, for its cover, published on December 30, 2018, for the New York Times, to mention but a few.

Her work is held in many public collections including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Baltimore Museum of Art in Maryland and a host of others.

Toyin Ojih-Odutola is best known for her highly detailed portrait drawings, mostly done in black pen ink. Her work has expanded to other forms such as pastel, pencil and charcoal. Her work ‘Compound Leaf’ is an intricately rendered self-portrait in charcoal, soft pastel hues, and pencil on paper.

Compound Leaf by Toyin Ojih Odutola

According to catalogue notes, she portrayed herself in an unknowable even generic setting, light floods in through large windows, yet its strong glare prevents the viewer from seeing beyond them; two framed paintings hang on the wall, yet their contents are blank and tell no story.

In the centre of this scene is the artist herself, composed in her signature style of feathery, dappled marks, which imbue both her skin and clothing with a dreamy and volatile fluidity. The artist’s tattoo of a leaf, from which the title takes its name, is subtly visible on her neck as if blooming from within her.

This elusive sense of dynamism and transmutability is central to the artist’s work, and indeed her approach to the representation of skin and fabric offers a compelling metaphor for her own experiences of diaspora and the complexities of assimilation. At once political and poetic, her visual language powerfully explores notions of identity and belonging.

Toyin Ojih-Odutola pushes the boundaries of identity and focuses on the sociopolitical construct of skin colour through her multimedia drawings. This will forever be relevant especially in times that we live in.

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