Toyin Ojih Odutola’s To Wander Determined occupies the ground floor gallery of The Whitney, an exclave of the museum’s galleries in a spatial sense. You first encounter a luxuriously laborious work called Representatives of State, an epically large drawing both mischievous and powerful. Nearby, on a facing wall, is the reproduction of a note explaining the provenance of the works, signed by the Deputy Private Secretary of the Udoka House in Lagos, Toyin Ojih Odutola. This note—given in addition to the usually provided museum wall text—explains that the purpose of the exhibition is to expand the legacies of two highborn (fictitious) Nigerian families, the UmuEze Amara and the Obafemi. The note is important. It creates awareness of a thin veneer of dynastic propaganda that coats the works in the exhibition with a blissful romanticism. The moments represented in the charcoal, pencil and pastel are not pivotal nor are they preachy. They are very much the images we expect of nobility: Choreographed snapshots, focused on silver linings that still manage to capture the turbulence of familial duties through empty stares. The still lives, in which the artist has turned her eye exclusively to objects, intensely depict the paradoxical sense of lack that shadows material wealth.
Ojih Odutola has afforded her characters the right to be complex and the narrative isn’t held to the standards of a parable. The impeccably rendered portraits of black figures that constitute the exhibition are intriguing to view because they leave much to be read into and deciphered. References to oft cited art historical genres and a neoclassical sense of innuendo leave many interpretive paths open in each work. Her hand as a draftswoman skillfully captures the rich surface qualities of fabric, gems and skin. The drawn countenances vary from from languor to the authoritative stares genetically passed to young royals. The portraits and still lives are a cool-deadpan statement of wealth as a divine right in the twenty-first century, highlighting difference between presentation and justification.
This contextual approach, which invests much effort into both the image and the story of its presentation, is somewhat of a new vein for Ojih Odutola. (She first presented the chronicling of the two Nigerian families last year at The Museum of The African Diaspora in San Francisco.) The handling of scenography and personal narratives have given the laboriously precise, even-if somewhat rhetorical rendering of skin a great counterpoint. The impeccable styling and attention to the textures of nature and architecture Ojin Odutola has introduced to her work gives a new depth to her drawings, which had previously tended to have one or two figures on a vacuously white or black ground. To Wander Determined marks the significant contribution by Ojih Odutola to the political and intellectual representation of black subjects. It also stakes new claims on methods and narratives that the artist will hopefully continue to explore to poignant ends.
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s To Wander Determined is on display now through February 25, 2017 at The Whitney.