Toyin Ojih Odutola is a Nigerian-born, New York based artist who works with charcoal, pastel, pencil, and pen. She has created numerous black and white portraits done with ball-point pen on paper.
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 existed in every college town. Growing up, she was sometimes harassed by insular white Americans and also by insular black American 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 fellow Alabaman Kerry James Marshall.
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. It featured an interconnected series of life-size fictional portraits of two aristocratic Nigerian families. 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.
She recently in 2016-2017 had an exhibition of her work at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora. Her portraits will be shown at the Seattle Art Museum for a year, starting at the end of July, 2018. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, MoMA, and the Whitney Museum among others.