I first came across Toyin Ojih Odutula’s work on Instagram and was immediately drawn to her mesmerizing portraits, and then blown away when I found out that she only uses charcoal, pen, pastels, and/or pencil. Her work explores the construct of skin colour, reimagining traditional portraiture in which Black figures are the central subjects.
She also challenges notions around blackness and what constitutes a “Black figure” through her use of ink. Her figures are assumed to be Black, even though, at times they are simply drawn in black pen, for example, explored through her series The Treatment (2015).
Playing with patterns, colour, and texture, she creates a hypnotic and fluid movement to their skin. Her intricate mark-making reflects the care and time she spends in the process of making her subjects come to life.
Toyin is a Nigerian-born, visual artist living and working in New York. Identify is fluid and complex especially in a North American context, her work contributes to a broader conversation surrounding race and representation as she explores her own experiences assimilating into American culture. She speaks to the struggles and layers of self-representation, how we navigate and present ourselves to the world, which is also shown through her method of physically layering lines over lines, with her pencils.
I believe this is also symbolic of how she, herself, navigates within the art community. Her work has been exhibited in a number of institutions, growing recognizable by her unique style, and stands as a testament to her contributions and mobility as an artist, and as a woman of colour that I find incredibly inspiring.
Written by Emilie Croning , a Toronto-based artist and curator. She received her BFA in Art History & Studio Art from Concordia University and is currently working with Wedge Curatorial Projects and pursuing her MA in Art History at York University. Her recent curatorial project, Of Ourselves (Gladstone Hotel, Toronto, 2018), featured photography by emerging Toronto artists.