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Chalk Portraits Deconstruct a Legacy of Class and Wealth

Toyin Ojih Odutola presents a new collection of a fictional Nigerian family's display of wealth.

Crafted out of a signature black-and-white ink or pencil style that gives the impression of skin and unmasks the body, artist Toyin Ojih Odutola’s works on paper are meant to deconstruct what's underneath. The technique is an inventive form of portraiture that leaves her subjects to appear as a series of sinewy markings. In her new drawing exhibition at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, A Matter of Fact: Toyin Ojih Odutola, the artist introduces color and interiors to examine constructs of wealth and class.

With A Matter of Fact I aimed to invent a history of wealth within an aristocratic, Nigerian family, whose entire existence was defined by opulence and privilege, says the artist. “Imagine all of the trappings of Europeanized wealth and status, all of the markers of respectability, come into form around and for the sake of black figures in a space,” she says.

Toyin Ojih Odutola, A Grand Inheritance, 2016, Charcoal, pastel and pencil on paper, 89 x 60 inches (paper) 94 3⁄4 x 66 x 2 1⁄2 inches (framed) ©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Photo: jka.photo

Ojih Odutola tells The Creators Project, “In the fall of 2013, I began expanding my material investigations in the studio—from working exclusively in pen ink and pencil to include charcoal and chalk pastel—which ultimately transformed my studio methodology and choice of subject in the realms of portraiture.”

“The idea of portraying the constructs of class and wealth as a subject," she says, "by emphasizing place and space along with other paraphernalia, offered new forms of expression and morphology within this striated language I’ve so often reserved solely for the skin of the people who may inhabit such environs.”

Toyin Ojih Odutola, Afternoon Tea, 2016, Charcoal, pastel and pencil on paper, 79 1⁄2 x 60 inches (paper) 84 1⁄4 x 66 x 2 1⁄2 inches (framed)  Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. RIGHT: Toyin Ojih Odutola, A Grand Inheritance, 2016, Charcoal, pastel and pencil on paper, 89 x 60 inches (paper) 94 3⁄4 x 66 x 2 1⁄2 inches (framed) Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Her portraits detail the implications of class and wealth through the fictional UmuEzeAmara clan and the objects they own. In The Marchioness, a female figure sits in fur surrounded by portraits that allude to generational aristocratic wealth. The drawing, along with Selective Histories and Donning Face, includes art and heirlooms, bringing to mind how wealth is maintained.

Ojih Odutola notes, “Like the construct of Blackness, wealth defines the spaces of those who inhabit it—it limits and/or permits movement and readjusts context. Like anything involving race and ethnicity, wealth, upon the striated plane of class, is indicative of a history that is invented and constantly reaffirming itself to keep the construct going.”

LEFT: Toyin Ojih Odutola, Hunting Season (Mother and Daughter), 2016, Charcoal, pastel and pencil on paper, 59 x 70 1⁄2 inches (paper) 66 x 76 1⁄2 x 2 1⁄2 inches (framed) Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. RIGHT: Toyin Ojih Odutola, A Misunderstanding with the Mistress, 2016, Charcoal, pastel and pencil on paper 79 1⁄2 x 60 inches (paper) 83 1⁄2 x 66 x 2 1⁄2 inches (framed) Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

“Since my youth, I have been entranced by the presumption and disposition of those who choose to don identities regarding wealth. Their projected identities seemed so permanent, so staid and true,” she explains. “You knew someone was wealthy because the privilege of that wealth was evident in everything they did, not simply everything they owned. This included abstract elements: mannerisms, graphology, speech patterns, taste, etc. The most evident of these qualities was the surroundings of the wealthy and how those surroundings were treated.”

Ojih Odutola, who describes herself as “a migrant child of Nigerian descent,” says the show is also inspired in part by how she experienced class and wealth growing up. “[I did] not feel like I even owned the very space I stood on, the idea of living in such places and existing in such a solid state seemed fantastical. What would it be like to have such foundations to always fall back on and to know they would always be there?” 

LEFT: Toyin Ojih Odutola, Casual Full Dress, 2016, Charcoal, pastel and pencil on paper 62 x 42 inches (paper) 66 3⁄4 x 47 5⁄8 x 2 1⁄4 inches (framed) Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. RIGHT: Toyin Ojih Odutola, Last Dance at the Annual County Gala, 2016 Charcoal, pastel and pencil on paper 77 x 42 inches (paper) 82 3⁄4 x 47 5⁄8 x 2 1⁄4 inches (framed) Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

The collection of work also explores the performance of wealth. The UmuEzeAmara Clan is seen horseback riding in Hunting Season (Mother and Daughter), attending a party in Last Dance at the Annual County Gala, and having afternoon tea. The couples in The Adventures Club, wear colorful prints and driving loafers meant to communicate a level of taste. The green jacket in Casual Full Dress, is the focal point of identity. Here Ojih Odutola’s work is informed by the French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu and his 1979 book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste that describes how distinguished aesthetics visualize class fractions.

A Matter of Fact questions how we value the depictions of wealth: how we translate the markings of it into our culture,” Ojih Odutola remarks. “It is something so desired, taught to pursue, and fought after in our society, but no one can truly compact it.”

A Matter of Fact: Toyin Ojih Odutola continues through April 2 at MoAD. Click here, for more information.

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