New York, Jul. 2013: Since receiving her MFA from California College of the Arts one year ago, Toyin Odutola has garnered much buzz as a young artist on the rise who maintains a fresh perspective on the flexible natures of race, identity, and nationality. Her process and progress are readily visible through her many social media outlets, which display her painstakingly prolific self-portraits.
But who is the woman behind the work? From where has she sprung? Born in Nigeria, Odutola currently lives and works in Alabama. So, when I learned that she would be in New York for the opening reception of her solo exhibition, My Country Has No Name, at Jack Shainman Gallery in May, I jumped at the opportunity for a conversation on art, literature, and the politics of transnational identities.
Toyin Odutola, Untitled, Diptych, Pen ink on Paper, 2011; Courtesy of the artist.
Alexandra Giniger: Toni Morrison happily accepts and encourages the label of “black woman writer” since, in her view, this is a vast and encompassing pool from which to draw creative inspiration. How do you feel when labeled as a Nigerian, or Nigerian-American artist, rather than simply a contemporary artist?
Toyin Odutola: I love that Toni Morrison quote about her being cast as a “black woman writer.” For her, the label was liberating, because from that standpoint anything was possible. I believe that as well. I think when something is viewed as concrete, even when people are describing or labeling you, you can choose where you want to go. I used to feel stifled by my being regarding as a “Nigerian-American Woman artist.” I thought it was a stamp that ruled me out of imagining anything more to explore.
Now, I don’t see it that way at all. The capabilities of imagination render all the walls put up nonexistent. What I choose to accept and what I choose to create are intertwined. So, to simply state I’m a contemporary artist is ill-advised, for it makes me look like I can’t work with what’s available to me, what I have access to, and what I can create from that material. Being called a contemporary artist can also be limiting, for it is devoid of any sort of meaning. I’m attracted to the contradictions inherent in the terms “Nigerian-American Woman artist”; it gives me much to think about and play with. But in the end I’m not limited to those terms and neither is anyone else in viewing my work.
Toyin Odutola, How much is a symbol worth?, 2013, pen ink and marker on paper, 30 x 40 inches; Courtesy of the artist.
AG: For the majority of his life, James Baldwin, whom you’ve cited as a personal source of inspiration, maintained a self-imposed exile from the country which birthed him, in order to avoid his seemingly predetermined fate of becoming “merely a Negro writer.” Baldwin proclaims, “I wanted to find in what way the specialness of my experience could be made to connect me with other people instead of dividing me from them.” Has your shift from a home in Nigeria to one in the American South informed the way in which your works are expressed, and in turn, affect your audience?
TO: What Baldwin was trying to get at, and Morrison too, was this idea of picturing someone marginalized or considered “other” as experience universal. When you can picture a young man of African descent as a voice of a larger demographic than the one he came from, then you have truly emancipated the writer and the audience. It’s a collective effort. This is something that many artists struggle with: a connection to another individual, regardless of where one comes from or where your affiliations lie.
One of the things I like to play with is the perception of what “Blackness” can do, what “Blackness” can be. My childhood in the American South was an education in the debilitating power of imposing foreignness. I had to deal with my foreignness at a very young age and it took me years to understand why it hurt me so much. I had to come to terms with the fact that I was adopting that foreignness because I believed that was my only capital and what I needed to succeed in this world. I realized, rather recently, that my identity is malleable and subject to manipulation. It was scary to come to grips with that, but once I did, I found there was a world of opportunity in exploring that.
AG: By claiming allegiance to an anonymous or intangible country, are you attempting to transcend categorization? Are you, in telling the story of the other, simultaneously liberating yourself from being confined to an “outsider” category?
TO: The reason for the title, My Country Has No Name, was in response to another interview question I had not too long ago, about the authenticity of my Nigerian-ness and whether I considered myself a Nigerian artist, even though I did not live in Nigeria. I found this question frustrating, for it meant that my not being geographically present in Nigeria meant the validity of my work was in question. In my mind, as it was when I was a little girl, Nigeria has traveled with me, it has evolved with me, just like China, India, Mexico, Brazil and various countries have evolved as the people born in these countries have migrated to other locales. The place of origin stays with you. You can choose how it defines you in your own individual way. But, when I picture Nigeria and where it exists in my life? It’s in my apartment. It flourishes in my parents’ living room. It’s present at Jack Shainman Gallery right now where my show is being exhibited. All of these places aren’t simply remnants, they are active contexts in which Nigeria flourishes. It’s in the conversations taken place there, the sharing that goes on in these spaces that creates Nigeria. It is not limited to a literally designated geography.
Toyin Odutola, The Constant Wrestle, 2013, marker on black board, 15 x 20 inches; Courtesy of the artist.
AG: I love the way in which your pen, ink, and marker converge to form purposefully visible layers of skin that seem in perpetual motion. The majority of works on view are straightforward portraits, which include your subjects’ facial features. I perceive in your subjects' deeply expressive eyes, for example, a brash confrontation and challenge of cultural complacency in the viewer. One work that struck me is The Constant Wrestle (2013). The isolation of body parts – with two hands in tender embrace – forces your audience to examine the complex, pulsating skin of your subjects. By removing any facial identifiers of race, which are already pushed into question through your use of multi-colored skin tone, we are drawn to the universal humanity of your subjects. Would you speak more about your decision to include this stand-alone work in the exhibition?
TO: The Constant Wrestle is one of my favorite works from the Gauging Tone series, next to The story of the hunt glorifies no one. (Homage to Chinua Achebe.) The piece was initially meant as a connector to my last solo exhibition (MAPS), which included a few cropped, ballpoint pen drawings emphasizing the hands. However, as I began working on this piece, I realized that it represented the heart of the show.
There are a few pieces that represent the conceptual purpose of My Country Has No Name clearly, like How much is a symbol worth? and You are enough--as is, but The Constant Wrestle truly captures my personal feelings about this concept and how ambivalent I feel about identity in art overall. It’s this idea in which identity takes precedence: the “American” or the “Nigerian,” the “masculine” or the “feminine,” the “black” versus the “white,” the “Citizen” or the “Immigrant”; when in truth, all these binaries only serve to limit the conversation I wish to have in the work. To expand upon this I had to include that piece as a sort of fork in the road, and from there see that anything can be included, not simply ultimatums.
AG: Most of your work takes the form of self-portraiture. As these works transition from your mind’s eye and your studio to the eye and possibly private collection of the viewer, do you feel as if you’re giving away a piece of yourself? Or is this less an experience of loss, and more a bold and direct declaration of your personal identity, meant to dissuade and dissolve external assumptions?
TO: It is weird to see your work up, especially when it used to be scattered around your studio in all manner of ways. To suddenly see each piece all spruced up and luminous in their frames, I feel like I have to reacquaint myself with them. I’m seeing them in a new light. It’s exciting to see them and also...strange. I guess they are like pieces of myself, but I never really view the self-portraits that way once they are finished. I see them as having their own lives, their own identities. I can’t control what they project once someone else comes to see them or collect them. It’s weird. Yeah, it’s weird. (chuckles) I just hope that people can appreciate them enough to understand that the time and labor spent is meant to create a multifaceted individual and that can inspire others to see the multitudes within themselves and others. It’s romantic, I know, but it’s what I always think about.
 James Baldwin, “The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American”, 1959.
ArtSlant would like to thank Toyin Odutola for her assistance in making this interview possible.