Toyin Odutola is an artist based in New York City. She works primarily in pen and ink drawings, focusing her work on identity and the socio-politics of skin color.
Natasha Wheat: Where are you from and how did you wind up where you are?
Toyin Odutola: I was born in Ife, Nigeria. Came to the States with my family when I was very young. I’ve lived in CA and grew up mostly in Alabama. I wound up here, in New York City, after graduating with my MFA and am now, very fortunately, working full-time as an visual artist.
NW: What are the most significant objects in your life?
TO: I guess it would be my drawings—at the zenith. Coming at a very close second are my collection of books, mostly art books, and a replica Ife-head sculpture portraying a woman, which I bought while I was visiting Los Angeles a couple months ago. I also was gifted a beautiful, framed portrait photograph by my close friend, Texas, recently. I consider this a part of my future generation's inheritance. Whoever inherits this photograph will be making sure it stays in the family, without question.
NW: Can you talk a bit about portraying the female form? I often say that we need more female Sculptors not sculptures, in reaction to females being represented by the male gaze, art historically. What are your thoughts or concerns with Women being depicted in contemporary representational art?
TO: For a while, I drew self portraits, so mainly the female form I was portraying was myself; but I never encountered the portrayal as revealing anything about myself. To me the female form was a character, of many characters, within the form. But contained as a whole, she could be anyone. It was too easy to simply say it was me. I would joke about those drawings, but whenever I draw myself, I often refer to the portrait as an avatar, an idea. My meaning is not to diminish subjectivity, but rather to emphasize the impossibility of capturing myself using my drawings. That’s too lazy of an approach. Nowadays, I rarely draw myself, unless it’s to test something—a notion, a material, a platform…whatever the case may be.
The male gaze is something I like to play with. I find it hilarious and incredibly dull, because it’s so binary: Portray a nude? It’s a spectacle. Portray someone naked? And it alludes to something more spiritual, it seems, something more grounded. The reason why the nude is often in female form (art historically), I think, is because women, by Western aesthetic standards, are often the embodiment of subject. For instance, this is why we refer to cities with gender female pronouns, etc, it’s a way of “humanizing” something or some place. To use the female form and the pronouns is to utilize the female subject as a tool to “soften” and to impart some sense of warmth—the womb comes to mind here. The problem arises when said “humanizing” is made into object, by de facto Western aesthetic again, a very male domain. To objectify is to sterilize and, thus, to dehumanize.
I often take a very clinical approach to drawing the female form, but I do not change this approach in the slightest when I am portraying the male form. Both are equal in my eyes. I have been drawing mostly male forms, as of late, and the read of my works have been intriguing. There is suddenly this need to give them subjecthood. To inject more humanity into them. I think this has more to do with drawing people I know, people close to me. But I wonder why such consideration was not made to my earlier works where I was portraying myself or other female forms? When you portray a male in his most essential form—as in without clothing markers indicating place or time—suddenly one is left to actually see the form for what he and it is. And for some reason that is troubling and it insinuates something erotic or inferior. I am aware of those inclinations, yes, but I’m not thinking about them when I am creating these portraits.
There is a drawing I am working on in my studio at the moment, of a man laying down. He is without clothing and his face is obscured. His buttocks is the center of the composition and most of the area portrayed is his back and legs. Basically, his body is on display. This man I am portraying is unknown to me. His ethnicity, cultural affiliations and sexuality are nothing close to me and are little known. As I am drawing him, I am conscious of his subjectivity and the need to humanize him is there, but I am also aware that this is made conscious because I am a woman who is creating this portrait and as a women who has seen this very pose, this very portrayal, done with a female form with less consideration and care. So, there is always a push and pull—a need to subvert as well as a need to mitigate with a staid and static tradition and trope. How this portrait will come together in the end, I do not know, but I like the exercise of creating something that is so far removed from me and my life (and the persons I care for in my life) to analyze the significance of such a portrayal and what it all means to the viewer who encounters it. The read is key.
NW: What have you inherited (this can be interpreted abstractly) and what do you push to move past?
TO: My father is a scientist, so a part of me is inclined towards the analytical. Testing hypothesis and never taking anything for granted as fact. He is also a professor and is very engaging and generous whenever he exchanges knowledge and interacts with people. I enjoy meeting new people and sharing stories with them. I give people the benefit of the doubt a lot. My mother is a nurse, but she has a post-graduate degree in reading English, so she is very graceful with her words, is incredibly articulate, and carries herself with pride and style. I am often attracted to word play and my work is all about the articulation of style and how to have the style be the orbit in which everything else revolves around. Concepts, materials and surfaces may change, but the style is consistent. In many ways this is an extension of what I inherited from her. Also, my mother is such a badass. She commands every room she enters and is intimidating in the most amazing ways. Both my parents have a very sharp and dry sense of humor and are never afraid to laugh at anything. Growing up in a Nigerian household, you are constantly surrounded by a a cacophonous soundtrack of accents and stories. There is no subject one cannot discuss and there is never a need to get insulted when in the midst of a great debate. A symposium could happen anywhere—the living room, the kitchen, the back yard, on the street or the driveway. With my parents and their friends, the opportunity to spark up a dialogue was always welcomed. I share this. Finally, I have to say gratitude, more than anything, and hustle, are two key factors I have inherited. My father would tell me stories about how he and his siblings would sleep on the floor with hay mats as their only comfort after working the fields and the river in their home near Lagos state and my mother of the nights when they had to wake up in the middle of the night to escape the rebel forces who would attack families in their sleep during the Biafran War. To see how far they have both come and the sacrifices they have made for my siblings and I, it puts a lot of gravity into every decision I make and everything I do, and makes me conscious of what I have and how fortunate I am. I work hard to never forget any of this. As I’ve grown, I’ve become increasingly aware of how incredibly lucky I am to have grown up with such lively parents and how much of a passionate person I am in regards to my work and all aspects of my life.
If I had to push past anything it would have to be the insecurity of being an immigrant and feeling deep-down inside you will never quite belong, you will never quite fit in. It’s incredibly infuriating, because no matter where you find yourself, you often feel like you are slightly… off, that your world and your view of the world will always be askew. This living in limbo—where you don’t feel at home in the country of your origin and you don’t feel the gravity of pride in the place(s) in which you grew up and formed your personhood—can take a toll and suck the life out of your motivation. Not surprisingly, this feeling used to have a crippling effect on me mentally and emotionally. Now, for the first time I’m trying my best to move past this complex and try to find a home in myself, which is easier said but very difficult to enact in practice. It’s a daily effort.
NW: You have lived in Nigeria, Alabama, San Francisco and now NYC. Like me, you are transient. Where do you feel most at home?
TO: Working on it. Have been living a nomadic existence for so long now that I can’t say I’ve ever really felt at “home” anywhere. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a daily effort to try and feel more comfortable wherever I find myself. If there has been any constant for me it’s been when I am drawing, that is where I feel most at home. When you are in that mindset you don’t care what surrounds you—unless it’s the weather. Lately, it’s extended to other realizations. Hanging out with my family wherever we are is definitely “home” as well.
NW: What does your system look like?
TO: On an uneventful day:
Wake up. Phone. Shower, brush teeth. Pick clothes. Spray. Pack bag/Jacket. Don’t forget keys. Shoes. Door. Walk. Underground. Subway. Wait for late subway. Ride. Ride. Ride. Underground, Walk. Emerge, into the city. Coffee. Breakfast. Walk. Enter studio building. Sign in. Lift. Walk. Pin-in to studio. Remove backpack/jacket. Coffee. Set up tools and drawing/work station. Look up at which works to tackle for the day. Draw. Break. Draw. Break. Draw. Break. Draw. Break. Draw. Break. Draw. Break. Lunch break. Emails. Emails. Emails. Draw. Break. Draw. Break. Draw. Break. Draw. Break…. Late dinner. Draw. Break. Draw. Break. Draw. Break. Arms, hands, and back cramp. Time to go. Close down working station. Turn off lights. Lift. Sign out. Walk. Subway. Wait for late subway. Ride. Ride. Ride. Underground. Emerge, near home. Walk. Enter home. Door. Shoes. Keys. Backpack/Jacket. Remove clothes. Pass out. Phone. Sleep.
Interview by Natasha Wheat
Photography by Colin Clark