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The pen is mightier than the sword in this Nigerian artist’s deft hands

Since graduating from the California College of the Arts in 2012, Toyin Odutola’s trajectory has been on a significant uptick. The Nigerian-born, Brooklyn-based artist has been included among Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list of notable names in art, been featured on Nowness with gal pal Solange Knowles and now has her first major solo exhibition, The Constant Wrestler, at the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art (IndyMoCA). These well-deserved accolades all stem from her visually arresting portraits, which are almost all created using a humble ink pen. KISUA sits down with Odutola to discuss the issues of nationhood she addresses with her work.

What is the theme of the show at IndyMoCA?
The exhibition is meant to inspire a dialogue in Midwestern Indianapolis that had not been explored in an art exhibition there before. Being that I am still a young artist, it allows for people to explore what the curator Shauta Marsh and I hoped would be a conversation around how incorporative, changeable and inventive "identity" as a concept and a reality can be. The exhibition is very open, allowing people to interpret the work in a variety of ways.

You’re also part of Six Draughtsmen, a group show at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA). What’s the concept?
Six Draughtsmen celebrates female draughtswomen of color. We all share a connection to Nigeria in heritage, culture, birth, and/or influence. To highlight a field in art – drawing - that is still seen in academia and the art world as substandard to painting and sculpture is a major statement and I commend MoCADA for supporting it. There's a refreshing and dynamic camaraderie in this show. I hope for more exhibitions focussing on this kind of intimate take on different facets of art making.

How much does your Nigerian heritage inform your work?
My being Nigerian already comes with so much richness and depth, all I wish to do is add to that; to mould it and reconstruct it, and most importantly, realize that all of that is a foundation to build upon to create something new. That also means distancing myself, respectfully and intellectually, from what has been done before. It should not limit me in creating the works I desire making. In the end, whatever I do I hope is parallel to that heritage and, at it's greatest, adds to that heritage.

How do you manage the cultural duality of being a Nigerian living in the US?
I don't look at it as inherently contentious. The moment I accepted that contradictions will always be a part of the narrative of my life, that friction subsided. I must admit I struggled with this when I was younger. I consistently had this urge to prove myself to others in some way… [Now] I'm far more intrigued by multiplicities, intersections and inventions. What makes any culture beautiful, endearing and lasting is that it travels. And the land in which it originates travels with it. What we need now more than ever is land - to roam, to build upon, to grow, to experiment, to flourish. In essence: to be free.

Since graduating your celebrity status has soared. What keeps you grounded?
Working! I just try to push myself in a way that is best for the work and not simply to garner shock or attention. My method and interest has always been works that are challenging and demanding while subtle and fluid, so I'm incredibly grateful that I am able to continue exploring that.

What can we expect from you in 2014?
A lot more exhibitions, which is very exciting. I'll also be partaking in a residency at The Fountainhead. And I have been working on a new series of works that are a materialistic departure from my usual tool of choice - pen ink. These explorations are currently in charcoal and pastel. It's teaching me a great deal and pushing the boundaries I have limited myself to in the past.

The Constant Wrestler is at IndyMoCA until January 25th, 2014

Six Draughtsmen is at MoCADA, Brooklyn until January 19th, 2014

Images: Copyright Toyin Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NYC

Words: Larry Ossei-Mensah


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