Toyin Ojih Odutola is a Nigerian-born, New York based artist of Yoruba and Igbo descent. She is concerned with historical representations of Black people in portraiture and weaves biographical elements into figurative works, using charcoal, graphite, pastels, colored pencils, and even ball-point pen.
Odutola, the only daughter in a family of boys, grew up in Alabama, the daughter of a Nigerian professor at the historically black Alabama A&M University. Her mother was a founding member of the Nigerian Women’s Association. Her family joined the close-knit community of West Africans, similar to such communities that exist in every college town. Growing up, she was sometimes harassed by insular white Americans and also by insular black Americans, who told her that she wasn’t “really black” or that her father had “stolen their jobs.”
When she was in high school, her parents praised her gift for drawing but viewed art as a hobby. It was her high school art teacher who introduced Odutola to a new conception of portrait painting through the works of African American artists like Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden, and Kerry James Marshall who also is from Alabama.
Odutola graduated from the University of Alabama in 2008 and received her M.F.A. from Cal Arts in 2012.
Her first solo museum exhibition in New York “To Wander Determined” was shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art from October 2017 through February 2018. It featured an interconnected series of life-size portraits of two fictional aristocratic Nigerian families, with added text of explanatory passages in her imagined world. Working in charcoal, pastel, and pencil, Odutola posed her figures in opulent settings as if they were successful Westerners. Such portraits would have been possible for Nigerians if they had not been forced to endure hundreds of years of slavery and colonialism.
Her “Like the Sea” series is a group of portraits of her two younger brothers. These paintings are made by layers of color to emphasize the beauty of Black skin. One of these paintings, “LTS I,” portrays one brother in repose. His dark black skin is made rich by black pastels. He wears gold jewelry and looks directly at the viewer with piercing eyes.
Recently she is returning to Nigerian themes in diptychs that combine images and texts. Her drawings of pictographs are paired with written vignettes of an imagined Nigerian mythology which tells of a fictional Central Nigerian civilization.
She recently in 2016-2017 had an exhibition of her work at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora. Her portraits were shown at the Seattle Art Museum for a year in 2018. Her portrait of the author Zadie Smith was unveiled at London’s National Portrait Gallery in July, 2020. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art among others.