Toyin Ojih Odutola: Exploring Relationships With The Power Of The Pen

One of my favorite things to do when I have free time is to watch Nollywood movies. I am drawn to the opulence, drama and morality of many of them. For me they provide a much-needed depiction of family and legacy in black culture. Last year, I was introduced to an artist that brings the drama of the screen to the canvas. Her name was Toyin Ojih Odutola and I was immediately captivated with what she was able to render with black ink. 

Toyin Ojih Odutola is a Nigerian born, Alabama raised artist that challenges the notions of race and class in her art. She uses pencil, charcoal and pastel to provide texture and create variances in skin color with the manipulation of light and shadow. 

A person sitting at a table with a cake

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Toyin Ojih Odutola, “The Proposal,” pastel, charcoal and pencil on paper, 53.5″ x 47.9″ x 2.5″, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, New York. © Toyin Ojih Odutola.

In a time when black Americans are gaining more and more agency over their narratives and wielding the power of the internet to rewrite and create themselves in the light they want to cast in going forward. Toyin’s work is an excellent reference point for the mission.

Despite what media projects on any platform the black experience in America is deeply nuanced one, and is as assorted as our complexions.  Some artists draw from pain. Some reference slavery and others the fascination with the black body. With black representations in visual art I always gravitate towards those artists that are serving something stories that challenge the black image and move it forward.

“The Proposal” is part of a larger series of works by the artist that depict the merging of two aristocratic Nigerian families the Emeke’s and Omodola’s. 

A group of people posing for a photo

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The Firm, 2017-18. Pastel, charcoal and graphite on paper. Photo courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.


Odutola’s latest show :“Toyin Ojih Odutola: Tell Me A Story, I Don’t Care If It’s True” is viewable online at the Jack Shainman gallery. It premiered June1-July 2020. Created entirely while on lockdown, there is a definite quiet desperation that flows throughout the exhibit. The surrendering of us all to this new way of life that can be inspiring, humbling and frustrating. For most of us, it has given us and even more enhanced reliance on our electronic devices than ever before. 

Toyin Ojih Odutola, Streets Ain’t Ready (2020). Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.

The artist is not only addressing isolation here, but showing us that even before isolation came about this is our world. It is not uncommon to see couples’ side by side eating with their devices in hand. Families sitting on trains and everyone is engrossed in a device. Who then are we truly having a relationship with? 

Ourselves or with others?

Toyin Ojih Odutola’s work can also be found on her personal website. 


Published by Chiara Atoyebi

Writer. Artist. Educator. Cultural Curator.

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