I’ve been to a lot of art openings. They’re usually the same: the not-so-subtle posturing, the atmosphere as stale as the snacks proffered, the indifferent crowds outside smoking cigarettes and drinking cheap wine. Toyin Ojih Odutola’s opening at the Whitney Museum of American Art was different. Marking her first solo show in NYC, To Wander Determined, the event was more reunion than reception. This night, filled with Black artists, scholars, curators, stylists, and writers who have praised Ojih Odutola’s genius for years and waited on places like the Whitney to catch up, felt like a collective triumph.
Museums like the Whitney, Guggenheim, and even the more progressive Brooklyn Museum have been historically known to exclude black women artists—and only in recent years have they begun to welcome them in. This shift is due greatly to the tenacious efforts of black women artists in the ‘60s and ‘70s—like Emma Amos, Camille Billops, and Faith Ringgold and many more—who simply would not be ignored, and as a response, created their own spaces for visibility like Where We At and The Hatch-Billops Collection. Ojih Odutola is following in this tradition: by not waiting around to be chosen, but instead bringing the center to her.
I first encountered the visual artist in 2012 on Solange’s mydamnblog. The younger Knowles sister was celebrating her purchase of a small trilogy of portraits by the artist, back when her distinctive expressional portraits were made solely with black ballpoint ink on paper. I made the immediate connection years later while watching the season two premiere of Fox’s Empire, where her chalk-drawn self-portrait Hold it in Your Mouth a Little Longer took center screen despite its positioning behind Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson).
High art is now accessing its audience in ways that defy elitist standards. Think Mickalene Thomas’ signature collage work, which graces Solange’s TRUE album cover; or performer Okwui Okpokwasili contorting her body into a fluid narrative along the pavement in Jay-Z’s video for 4:44; and multimedia artist Awol Erizku capturing Beyoncé’s twin-reveal photos, which reached over 11 million likes on Instagram. Ojih Odutola is one of many young artists of color who are stepping outside of the conventional bounds of visibility and pushing past gatekeepers by utilizing channels like social media, television, and personal websites.
Inspired by pop culture, migration, and her experiences coming of age as a Nigerian in conservative Alabama, To Wander Determined is an interconnected series of life-sized fictional portraits, rendered in charcoal, pastel, and pencil, chronicling the lives of two aristocratic Nigerian families.
“The skin for me, that’s where my career kind of started. The skin was an access point,” says Ojih Odutola in a statement to the Whitney. “Whenever I create the skin, it’s sort of like a world, this idea of the multifaceted self, the layered self, and how we are so many selves in so many different ways.” The artist is able to illustrate the multi-dimensionality of her characters through her distinctive rendering of the intricacy of the skin—the faces seem to move as you change your angle of perspective.
By presenting this family in luxurious landscapes, going beyond the common role of black skin in servitude, Ojih Odutola is able to challenge stereotypes that surround the Nigerian community, as well as other immigrants in this country. Their placement inside an American art museum insists that the viewer humanize these figures. In our current political climate, with DACA being #hashtagged less and violent deportations rising, this show has the potential to influence and recharge the momentum in conversations around immigration in America.
Co-curated by Rujeko Hockley, who also co-curated We Wanted a Revolution at the Brooklyn Museum, and Melinda Lang, the show is located on the first-floor John R. Eckel, Jr. Foundation Gallery, which has free entry, and is therefore accessible to audiences regardless of class, social status, or financial restrictions. This one is for the people. The lavender-hued walls selected by the artist, despite the institution’s resistance, emit a warmth that deconstructs the intimidating coldness these spaces can often project.
On opening night, the room broke out into a synchronized “Aye” as the artist, in her signature brightly colored head wrap, entered. Ojih Odutola stretched her long frame, from the tips of her toes, and scanned the room. She spotted her mother and extended her arms towards her. Exuding the same opulence as the figures in To Wander Determined, they lifted their hands to the sky, a real-life instance of the message of the exhibit: the undeniable impact of kinship in identity.