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?