Toyin Ojih Odutola by Ashley Stull

On race, representation, and inspiration.

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A Verb and a Noun, 2013. Pen ink and marker on paper. Diptych, 9 x 12 inches (each).

Toyin Ojih Odutola is a master of treading softly while issuing a powerful statement. Her conceptually direct images carry with them dense political undercurrents, yet never neglect the fundamentals of form and craft. While the formal concerns of mark-making and portraiture are in the foreground of her renderings, the ideological foundation on which Ojih Odutola works separates her from other artists. The images she creates speak about blackness—African blackness, American blackness, and the blackness of the 20th century color field—compounding these issues of race and history with those of gender. Having recently relocated her studio, the artist discusses her new locale, the evolution of her practice, and the few things that will never change.

Ashley Stull You’ve fairly recently moved to New York after significant periods in Nigeria, Alabama and California. Is this home now? How did you make that decision and how has it affected your studio?

Toyin Ojih Odutola I never would have imagined I’d end up in New York. The concept seemed beyond me, because when you claim that address there is something very official about it, like “I’m a professional now.” The crazy trajectory of homes that led me to New York all informed me in ways that precipitated the jump. I have no idea how long I will stay, but being in the city has changed me immensely. You have access to such a diversity of culture (and so much of it) that it inexorably comes into the work. For instance, I never would have imagined that I would create an eight feet long charcoal and pastel drawing, but that happened this year with LTS IX (2014). I’ve also made a ballpoint and marker pen drawing that’s sixty-six inches tall, Rather than look back, she chose to look at you (2013). That’s what New York is all about: scale. Things get more ambitious, you take more risks, you invest more time—because the city demands that of you.

AS How did you arrive at ballpoint pen? It communicates dark tones beautifully, but what works about it so differently from other materials—like charcoal? I know you also work in charcoal and marker, but pen seems born out of something interesting I hope you can unpack.

TOO I came to ballpoint pen with a need to render how skin felt like to me. It’s a tool that seems to translate more empathetically what I was trying to portray… skin as a striated terrain, and in a broader sense, the concept of a portrait as a platform for creating a sense of place. The sheen is the key. When I press the pen into the surface of paper, board or wood, a sort of engraving is taking place, akin to the process of printmaking. The magic of viscous fluid is that the darkest areas, the relief-like marks, also become the lightest areas by simply changing one’s point of view. Light and shadow play are what make the pen and ink interactive. I have worked with graphite and charcoal and all are successful in their own way, but there is something very singular about the viewing process of pen ink that sets it apart from the others.

It’s incredibly inspiring conceptually, and over time the ballpoint pen has been the driving force for a number of explorations.


LTS VIII, 2014. Charcoal and pastel on paper,  approx. 50 x 52 inches.

AS Your early experimentation with marker was drawing on t-shirts, right? What’s your history with textiles and how does it play into your work now?

TOO I’ve always been interested in surfaces, textures. Having travelled to and resided in such distinctive locales in my life has often made me question and explore ideas about communication and translation. Drawing is a form of language; so is the art of making textiles. In Nigeria, as in many African countries, there’s a rich history involving textiles—the wearing of them, the making of them and so forth. But, that wasn’t always what drew me in that direction. My early drawings on t-shirts were a means of making money and playing with (the then very new) drawing style that I am known for today. I honestly didn’t think much would come of it, for I mostly sold them to friends. What I ended up learning from the experience of making them was how my hand moved and adjusted to the surface as I was drawing. Its a hugely significant skill whether dealing with paper, mylar, wood, stone, metal, etc. It taught me how to compose a surface on top of a surface.

AS How do you draw the line in communicating the abstract commonalities of blackness from communicating something more personal? You’re known for your self-portraits, but I’m really taken by your portrayal of black men and know you often use your brothers as subjects. Does the concept of “kinship” play into what you do?

TOO I have an ambivalent relationship with incorporating the “Blackness” of identity politics with personal portrayals of family members. There are times when these two points are very much exclusive and others when it goes without saying that these are inextricably linked. When I set about drawing a portrait of either one of my brothers, I approach the initial stages from a personal and practical perspective. I want to emphasize the importance of this person who means a great deal to me, but I also wish to explore an inquiry that is broader than that personal realm. It’s difficult to describe. There’s a lot of back and forth in the process of making that deals more so with implication rather that direct correlations. I am always trying to use the portrait as a means of questioning dogmas or things that appear socially impenetrable, standard and solid. To shake up the notion of something is always exciting to me, even if that means that I am proving myself wrong or attacking a principle or belief that I hold dear. It’s a weird balance that I teeter on constantly as I work.

AS We visited in San Francisco several years ago while you were in the planning stages of an exhibition. You were grappling with the most appropriate way to show your work in that space, which was tricky as it wasn’t the most conventional of exhibition spaces. I’ll never forget the moment it came to fruition and you settled on shelves. Shelves. Is there an element in your work that raises questions about the objectification of the black body?

TOO Yes! I remember that. I was working on the series “Come Closer,” which was comprised entirely of black ballpoint pen ink (and some times black acrylic ink) on black board. The purpose was to try and invert the context of the portraits I was making, which before that point was mainly black pen ink portraits (sometimes with marker) on a white ground. I was adamant about the white ground before, because I felt the matrix of marks that composed the figures was enough information. But, I was also aware that the impact of black figures against a white ground inherently referenced a contested, objectified read. With the black on black portraits of “Come Closer,” I was interested in expanding the materiality and the concept of blackness in form, structure and aesthetic and how that can be applied to social constructs of identity. This convoluted idea of “Blackness” (which is suspiciously static) always puzzled me—and continues to do so. I thought of how to undermine it, to question it in a way that was concise yet thorough. I came to the idea of presenting them on shelves since they were portraits but just as importantly, ideas and objects.


Come Closer: Black Surfaces. Black Grounds. III (Adeola. Abuja, Nigeria.), 2012. Black pen ink on black board, 20 x 15 inches.

AS Can you speak about your influences? I know you have a relationship to artists like Hank Willis Thomas and Kerry James Marshall. In what ways do your influences play into your work, and do you imagine any collaborations in the future?

TOO Marshall had a huge influence on me when I was first introduced to him. Every time I see his works, I am always inspired to try different things, different forms, and ways of playing with the surface. Another artist’s work I’ve been really influenced by lately is Lynette Yiadom-Boakye; the way she uses muted palettes and strong accent colors always astounds me. I’m constantly looking for inspiration, to try out different techniques. Influences are great motivators, for they allow you to contemplate processes that may seem far removed from your methodology, but challenge your assumptions about what your work can do, what your work can mean. In terms of collaboration, I am more open to that now than I was a few years ago. I’ve always wanted to create a comic book, and I often look to artists like Robert Pruitt who work masterfully with that medium. I would love to collaborate with him, if possible. But, if I had an all-time dream collaboration it would be with the manga artist, Takehiko Inoue. Chancing upon his work was one of the defining moments for me as a teenager. Reading the “Vagabond” series made me want to be an artist.

Ashley Stull Meyers has curated exhibitions and programming for the Wattis Institute (San Francisco), Eli Ridgway Gallery (San Francisco), The Luggage Store (San Francisco) and the Oakland Museum of California. She has been in academic residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art (Omaha, NE) and the Banff Centre (Banff, Alberta). Most recently, Stull Meyers has been an adjunct professor at Wichita State University (Wichita, KS).

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