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The Limits of Subjectivity

Tom Denman argues that a growing number of artists, including Toyin Ojih Odutola, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Amoako Boafo, Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Amy Sherald, have been exploring the possibilities of Modernism to counteract existing paradigms of race and representation. Frames, outlines, shadows, more frames, more outlines, terrain, landscape, skin; set in a rectangle roughly sharing the dimensions of a laptop screen and rendered in coloured pencil, graphite and ink, Toyin Ojih Odutola’s The Day You Finally See It, 2020, achieves what some theorists have deemed to be nigh-on impossible: she has represented a black person undefined by her race or by anything external to the frame. The sign of her skin – ‘a sign in excess of all signs’, to use Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe’s phrase – does not by any means outweigh the subject, who is autonomous, questioning and private. Nor does the white mount offset the skin, because its whiteness serves no purpose other than to do cosmetic justice to the tonality of the drawing as a whole. The figure, whose head we see from behind in semi-profile, is in a world of her own (and perhaps of her own creation), from which the viewer is excluded, and yet her enigmatic composure compels us to keep looking, the traditional Rückenfigur no longer serving as our surrogate to lend self-conscious reflexivity to the looking experience but rather as a means of at once drawing us in and blocking us out.

Perhaps she is not looking, but listening; perhaps to a scene in another work, such as those found in the sequence of large-scale monochrome drawings in ‘A Countervailing Theory’, the artist’s current exhibition at The Curve in London’s Barbican Centre. This picture-within-the-picture seems to expand far beyond the little of it that we see and even beyond its own frame, to the left of the figure’s head. This is because the wall beyond is the same colour as the rocks depicted in the drawing, and the shadow her head casts spreads across this threshold, symbolically connecting the madeness of the pictorial backdrop with a swathe of other elements: the world outside the window, the consciousness of the figure (who may or may not be the artist), and the hand and marks that figured her. The terrain of the rock and that of her skin and hair and the top she is wearing are further converged through the use of shadow, the absence of pictorial depth (which is somewhat ingeniously complicated by the pictorial depth of the drawing in front of her) and the ubiquitous commonality of striated marks.

The way that the shadow of her profile falls crisply onto the background drawing is reminiscent of the classical myth of the origin of painting or, as it has sometimes been told, of drawing. In Book XXXV of his Naturalis Historia, Pliny the Elder tells us that painting was born when Kora, a young woman in the ancient Peloponnesian city-state of Sicyon, traced the profile of her lover’s shadow on a wall, the image being a token to remember him by when he departed overseas. The shadow as a projection of the subject is a metonym of Ojih Odutola’s mark-making practice: this is her world, unified by her signatory marks. That the subject of the background drawing is itself an ancient myth set in a landscape based on the rock formations of the Jos Plateau in central Nigeria – the country of the American artist’s birth – hints at the immeasurable extent to which it might extend, not only in the physical sense of its scale but also in terms of narrative, history and memory, both personal and cultural. (Without wanting to ‘ethnicise’ her technique, it is notable that the striations she uses bear a striking resemblance to those inscribed into the surface of the 13th-century Yoruba ‘heads’ cast in copper alloy which were excavated in Ife, the city in which Ojih Odutola was born.) Moreover, the self-exploratory theme of the image is signified yet more enigmatically when seen together with its handwritten textual accompaniment, appearing in a separate opening in the mount board to the bottom left of the drawing (so that both image and text are diagonally arranged within one frame): ‘You once said you wanted to get at the deepest, darkest part of yourself. You lied. The day you finally see it, who’ll you be? A stranger to the truth hidden there.’ Reinventing the pictorial language of Las Meninas, and intricately weaving together disparate systems of myth and signification and levels of being, this meta-picture foregrounds not only its own making but also the production of self and subjectivity.

Toyin Ojih Odutola, This is How You Were Made; Final Stages, 2019

Art Monthly no. 441, November 2020

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