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Issue 214

Toyin Ojih Odutola Imagines a Prehistoric Civilization Where Women Rule

For her first UK exhibition at London’s Barbican, the artist builds a narrative of two lovers caught up in a matriarchal society

BY Rianna Jade Parker in Reviews , UK Reviews | 08 SEP 20

For her first UK exhibition, ‘A Countervailing Theory’, Nigerian-American artist Toyin Ojih Odutola casts herself as the director of the fictional Jos Plateau Research Initiative in Nigeria, who has accepted an invitation to present the results of her team’s ten-year investigation of a black shale rock discovered during mining works by a Chinese investment company in Plateau State. The pictorial markings and motifs uncovered by the team signal a sophisticated and intentional art-making practice by a civilization that predates the Nok – the oldest documented population in the region.


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Toyin Ojih Odutola, Establishing the Plot, 2019, charcoal, pastel and chalk on board. Courtesy: the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Forty black canvases, varied in scale, are installed unaligned against rectangular blocks of grey that border the 90-metre half circle of the Barbican Curve gallery. Visitors can only follow one route through the space, so the tale unravels like a comic strip. The protagonists, Akanke and Aldo, are illustrated exclusively in chalk, pastel and charcoal. The ecosystem of their world relies on an oppressive system that requires a permanent underclass – not unlike contemporary society. The ruling class of women warriors, the Eshu, are astute and upright, yet never question the ethics of exploitation they rely on to maintain civic order. As far as they are concerned, they are ultimately good and their social construct is a means to an end. The Koba are humanoid male worker drones, created by the Eshu exclusively for servitude: mining and food cultivation are their sole purposes. It is deemed criminal for Koba and Eshu to form emotional or physical bonds with one another. Contact should remain dispassionate and transactional. In this society, homosexuality is the norm and heterosexuality is abhorred. Inevitably, Akanke and Aldo disregard this convention and pay the ultimate price for it.

The first drawing in the sequence, Establishing the Plot (2019), details Aldo’s first living memory: the making of his body and the forming of his shadow. As the narrative arc unfolds, the shadow is understood to represent the truest embodiment of being and awareness. Aldo is prepared through professional training and mating rituals as a miner. A shared melancholy seeps from the portraits of the Koba class. In This Is How You Were Made; Final Stages (2019), they are branded and scarred by Eshu overseers, their heads bowed in complete subjugation. Elsewhere, in Summons; To Witness One’s Own (2019–20), a cluster of shaved heads, with face markings and hallowed eyes, causes me to still my steps.


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Toyin Ojih Odutola, Imitation Lesson; Her Shadowed Influence, 2019, charcoal, pastel and chalk on board. Courtesy: the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

When travelling between factories to supervise quality control, Akanke notices Aldo labouring in the field carrying a heavy load of stones, and selects him as a handservant. This requires him to break the bond with his partner, Tarek, and leave his community. Untypically for an Eshu, however, Akanke shows kindness and favour to her new assistant, expanding his limited scope of the world by sharing with him everything she has been taught but never questioned. Listening subsequently to Aldo’s testimony, Akanke becomes convinced that her complacency in this violent regime is no longer justifiable. Imitation Lesson; Her Shadowed Influence (2019) impresses upon the viewer a formation of two opposites, fiercely attracted, under one penumbra.

The most stirring image, An Understanding: A Lesson in Listening (2020), depicts a peak in Aldo and Akanke’s relationship. The wide canvas accommodates Akanke’s muscular elongated body, her legs spread open like wings. Aldo is firmly nestled between Akanke’s thighs; one of her legs is lifted over his shoulder. She peers down at him, her palm resting on his back, as an unidentified nubilus emanates from her pelvis. In her exhibition text, Ojih Odotula explains: ‘He is writing a love poem to her through this act of cunnilingus, using the mouth to communicate to her, and she accepts this text. It’s an act of creating a new language borne out of love and the story grows in her from that. They become one in the choice of that act.’ Halfway through the exhibition, An Understanding: A Lesson in Listening reminds us that this kind of union is not common and must remain secret. Aldo and Akanka embark on a journey to explore their love away from prying eyes.

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Toyin Ojih Odutola, A Forbidden Impulse, 2019, charcoal, pastel and chalk on board. Courtesy: the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Elsewhere, a Koba servant rises up against an overbearing Eshu warrior, stealing a staff he is forbidden to handle and striking her shadow – attacking her very essence rather than her body. Formless, her spirit trickles through the landscape, but her vacated corpse is eventually found. Every Koba is summoned for judgement by the Eshu empress but, as fate would have it, Aldo and Akanke return from their travels at this exact moment. Since Aldo is the last Koba to arrive, he is wrongly accused of the murder, trialled and sentenced to death. Helpless to save him, Tarek mourns Aldo from the crowd of spectators, while Akanke is forced to swallow her screams in order to save her own life and those of the twins she unknowingly bears.

Guiding visitors’ pace rhythmically through the gallery is ‘Ceremonies Within’, a 12-channel original soundscape by British-Ghanaian composer and sound artist Peter Adjaye, which coaxes you into the subaltern. In conversation with me, Adjaye recalls the origin of the project: ‘Toyin reached out to me through mutual friends to collaborate. She really liked my album Dialogues [Vinyl Factory, 2016], particularly my composition “Darkest Light”. We instantly got on, like kindred spirits, and our direct way of communicating freely was key to exchanging fluid creative cultural thinking. It also involved sharing a wide variety of musical influences, from Black Jazz to contemporary African to experimental ambient Japanese. The thing that made me say yes was her deep honesty to collaborate with me in a totally open and creative mode with no restrictions on my artistic response. She encouraged me to produce whatever I thought was right, as she totally trusted my creative and artistic practice.’ These layered sounds of West African instruments, electronics, strings and natural elements, wind, water and rocks, fixated my mind and body in their civilization. Without it, I don’t believe I would have lingered in the gallery for as long as I did. ‘Ceremonies Within’ will be released as a vinyl-only limited edition this autumn. 

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Toyin Ojih Odutola, To Be Chosen and Not Known, 2019-20, charcoal, pastel and chalk on linen over Dibond panel. Courtesy: the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

In conversation with Barbican associate curator Lotte Johnson, Ojih Odutola explained: ‘At the beginning of this project, I naively thought simply flipping the script by countervailing was a direct way of challenging established norms. What I ended with was flipping the script for yourself to see how insidious the system is and who stands to benefit when the ones at the top could be anyone.’ Personally, I’m less interested in an equal society than I am in an equitable one, in which assistance is provided to those who need it, proportionate to their individual circumstances, to balance levels of access and opportunities. I take no comfort in the idea of matriarchal governance, nor do I believe a dominant class is necessary for prosperity, but it makes for an interesting daydream.

Toyin Ojih Odutola, Mating Ritual, 2019, charcoal, pastel and chalk on board, triptych. Courtesy: the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Rianna Jade Parker is a writer, historian and curator. Her first book, A Brief History of Black British Art, was released by Tate Publishing in 2021, and her second is forthcoming from Frances Lincoln. She is an advisory board member for Forensic Architecture, a contributing writer of frieze and a contributing editor of Tate Publishing.