Against stark black or white backgrounds, New York–based visual artist Toyin Ojih Odutola's portraits look like a landscape scene mapped onto skin; the body becomes its own kind of canvas for the viewer to explore. Since receiving her MFA in 2012, Ojih Odutola has critiqued the notion of a universal black experience in portraiture. In her own work, she depicts blackness as something fluid and diverse, as malleable or as static as the practice of drawing itself.
The author Claudia Rankine sees this as a marker of Ojih Odutola's genius. "Odutola's portraits explore how to desegregate blackness from a fixed racial position and open it out to all the mythology, missteps, racism, beauty, and life that is held by the term," she writes in Aperture magazine's 2016 "Vision & Justice"issue, highlighting the multilayered themes of identity and history that permeate Ojih Odutola's work. In a recent solo exhibit at the Museum of African Diaspora in San Francisco, A Matter of Fact, she takes her portraits in a new direction, bringing color and context to a longform series about a fictional African aristocratic family. Over the past few years, Toyin Ojih Odutola's work has gained attention in the art world and beyond: her piece Hold it in Your Mouth a Little Longer appeared on Fox's hit show Empire; she has a new book, The Treatment, coming out this year, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York recently acquired her portrait The Raven (2016).
Her portraits appear to be stripped-down and minimalist, but it's in the details of each work where Ojih Odutola's love of her materials — charcoal, pastel, and ballpoint pen — shine through. The intricate details of Ojih Odutola's pieces are breathtaking up close and in person, but she is generous with her digital audience as well — she writes long Instagram posts about her inspirations and her motivations, and she posts behind-the-scenes documentation of her artistic process and the research she does to build out new ideas.
I called Toyin Ojih Odutola on a snowy night while she worked in her Manhattan studio to talk about her process, developing her love of color, and her go-to work soundtrack.
Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite: How do you start planning a new piece or a series? Do you start with the materials or the concept?
Toyin Ojih Odutola: The real subject of my work is the line, the color, the composition. Portraiture is the genre I use as a platform. I have a very particular style, and I've always been interested in how to further that style, how to manipulate it, and how to morph it in a way to create a visual language out of it.
There's a lot of research involved when it comes to [creating] a longform series. I study a lot of different artists, usually from the past, and I do a lot of notes and outlines. And then I kind of throw that to the side, strangely enough. I need that scaffolding before I start. Then I go for it. When I first start, I have no idea what's going to happen. But then I see something formulating. I see a pattern. It just kind of builds from there, and suddenly the show is there, and I can finally go back to my notes with all this new information coming from the making, and then I can write what the show is about.
MA-S: What does it look like when you get energized and walk into the studio to start working?
TOO: I have two studios, one on the tenth floor of this building, [and] I have one on the sixth floor. On the sixth floor is all the charcoal, pastel … the messy stuff. And then the affair on the tenth floor's much more monochromatic work, so a lot of the white charcoal on black board. If I'm working on a series, I'm in one studio for two months at a time. Today I'm on the sixth floor. I'll tell you what, I splash some Solange and I'm good. I got some candles lit. I'm working with color now because there's a lot of interest in the color stuff right now. But I also am interested in it as well, and I want to see where I can go with it.
MA-S: You put a lot of that color work into your recent exhibit at the Museum of African Diaspora in San Francisco. How did you come up with the concept?
TOO: It was incredibly freeing, because up to that point, I hadn't done … not only subjects with such a colorful background, but just surroundings in general, and [I got to present] a lot of African places that I never really depicted before. So the whole experience was just me seeing how far I could push for myself; it wasn't really to prove anything to anyone, it was only to prove it to me that I could do it. It was an opportunity to finally see what was possible. I'd been pigeonholed slightly as an artist for a while and I needed to expand what I could be as an artist and not have it be about a specific kind of narrative or a specific kind of aesthetic.
MA-S: Did you feel like you were making work for a particular audience or within a certain set of restrictions up until that point?
TOO: I think the thing I noticed from when I first started showing professionally to when I started working on A Matter of Fact was that I didn't exactly know what I was doing. I didn't really know how to frame the work. And so for me, the reads [from other people] were always so off from what I really was investigating.
I think the investigative nature of my work came forward, and it was less about Blackness with a capital B and the monolithic definition [of blackness], and more about how dynamic that definition is. It can become anything, especially within a composition that is polychromatic and so layered. So much of my work early on was very, very pared down and very, very restricted. So to expand the definition of the work was to expand the framework that people would view the work in.
MA-S: What are you working on now? What are you looking forward to?
TOO: I've been the behind-the-scenes kind of artist, just very slowly, very conservatively building up my … I guess, for lack of a better word, "brand" in the art world. And then last year, it just kind of exploded in a way. There's a lot of hot air [in that scene], which makes me kind of side-eye, because I'm not one of those puffy art stars. I don't want to be the one that's like, "Oh, please take a photo of me for Vogue."
Speaking of Vogue, there are some things Anna Wintour has said that I love. Someone asked her, "What's your favorite issue?" And she said something like, "It's the next one. It's the issue that hasn't happened yet." And I love that; I'm the same [way]. There are pieces from my past that I hold onto, but whenever people ask me, "What's the thing that really excites you about your work?," I say it's what's coming up, what hasn't happened yet. That's what excites me. That's what gets me up in the morning to just try something different every day.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite is a writer and editor living in Toronto. She has written for Elle, Jezebel, Lucky Peach, and more.