A Countervailing Theory: Toyin Ojih Odutola @ The Curve, Barbican, London
“I’m attracted to the understated in art,” Toyin Ojih Odutola told us in her 2017 cover story, “moments that can be quickly passed over, but are complex and layered. There’s nothing wrong with bombast, and the maximalist in aesthetic and presentation, and I often exploit those very qualities. But nothing beats the underwhelming, the quiet, the subtle.” As I was researching Ojih Odutola’s newest show, A Countervailing Theory, on view now at the Barbican in London, I wanted to revisit how this artist’s approach so fully represents, intentional or not, the very fabric of the world in 2020. In work she christens as an “imagined ancient myth,” I marvel at how perfectly she utilizes each line in her painting and drawing. Everything is considered, every single decision contemplated and cared for. If we have learned anything in 2020 is that every decision matters, whether for yourself or others. Which means there is magic in this work.
Through pastel and charcoal works, the Nigerian-American artist travels through space and time as a storyteller, which I saw described almost as a new form of graphic novel, a “narrative of an imagined ancient myth set in central Nigeria, depicting a society dominated by female rulers and served by male labourers.” At heart, her art is about power dynamics, shifting and evolving, intimately described through these characters but speaking in a broader spectrum about the backdrop of our own reality and the shifting dynamics of the 21st Century Western World. Even through her social media practice, Ojih Odutola is a special kind of writer, as she questions and explains how social hierarchies direct her vision as they create a greater narrative of the art historical lexicon. That Ojih Odutola continues to be one of the most original thinkers and most sought after artists in contemporary art with one of the most stunning bodies of work being made today is a moment of pause and awe. It’s the year of noticing. This is work that demands attention. —Evan Pricco