Q&A: Toyin Odutola on Drawing, Chinese Art, and What It Really Means to Have a Big Head

The portrait artist readies for a group show at the Studio Museum in Harlem

Toyin Odutola’s pen-and-ink drawings are part of the upcoming group show "Fore" at the Studio Museum in Harlem (November 11 through March 10). "Fore" is the fourth installment in Studio Museum's "F" series, which showcases the work of newer artists of African descent. Held every four years, the "F" series has exhbited work from some of today's premiere black artists. At just 27, Odutola is quickly becoming a noted portraitist. In 2011, her first solo show at Jack Shainman Gallery—they represent her—sold out before opening day.

Born in Ife, Nigeria, Odutola moved with her family to Berkeley, California, at the age of five and later to Huntsville, Alabama. Her drawings, which she typically creates with just an everyday ballpoint pen, often arise from an encounter with an interesting face and evolve into near-multidimensional statements on identity.

The Voice chatted with Odutola via video about black images, art in Alabama, and why the face makes for better art than the body.

Odutola's Bored, Doe-Eyed and Waiting.
Courtesy of Toyin Odutola and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY
Odutola's Bored, Doe-Eyed and Waiting.
Toyin Odutola
Courtesy the artist and Studio Museum or Harlem
Toyin Odutola


November 11 to March 10
The Studio Museum in Harlem
144 West 125th Street
212-864-4500, studiomuseum.org

You started getting serious about art in college. What kind of work were you doing?
I was doing all kind of things. When you start college, you do a lot of foundation courses—you do painting, you do graphic design. Drawing was something I was interested in since I was very little, but I didn’t really know that drawing was something I was going to keep doing after college—it was just something I kind of did on my own. And the style developed—that I’m kind of known for now—developed in college on my own. I was playing around with the contours of the face and different components and things and it fell from that. I graduated, and of course you don’t have a job, and you’re sitting in your parent’s basement and you keep drawing and working at McDonald’s and then you kind of build and build and build. I built up a portfolio I thought was strong, and applied to grad school at CCA. I just graduated. I don’t really know how I got here—just some steps—step after step.

A majority of your work depicts the human face. Why did you choose that part of the body?
It’s two things. One, I’m more interested in the face than the body. I sometimes feel like the body—and this could be my own projection—but I feel like the body is contentious, and whenever you show a body, whether male or female, immediately people kind of have this image with representational work. People say, “Oh, that’s a penis” and “Oh, those are breasts.” Human beings cannot separate—it’s just a go-to thing. And for me, it’s about identity, so identity doesn’t necessarily have to be a body—it has to be identifying a face. The conversation is more interesting when it’s directly looking at the face, the countenance.

Secondly, I’m really fascinated by this concept in Benin ancient sculpture, which came from where I was born, in Ife. Benin sculpture is all about the face—the face in Yoruba culture is often referred to as the “crown,” and it’s the most important part. If you look at a lot of sculpture from Nigeria in this time—12th century and 16th century—the head’s always bigger than the body. You always see sculptures where the head’s huge and the body is tiny. My dad would always joke with me and say, “Us Nigerians are very big-headed.’ [Laughs.] No, I think it’s about identity. I’m attracted to that, I’m attracted to the face more.

And black figures? You draw primarily black figures.
Yes and no. It’s a trick.

How so?
Of course they’re black figures because they’re drawn in black pen, but not all of the figures are of African American descent, or at least the reference isn’t. One of the things I like to play with is, “What is black?” Is it because I drew it? Is it because it looks black? Is it because you think the figure is black? Because a lot of it is just a filter, and the filters get more and more obstructed by whatever people think the image is about and not really what it is. So often times I don’t tell people a lot about the work because I think they create a mythology around it, which is far more interesting than what it actually is. I give little tidbits in titles, but I like that there’s a slight ambiguity—not too much—but enough so people can invent their own stories.

How does the color of your subject influence the way you approach your art?
One thing that I’m very interested in is composition and how interesting the gaze is. Often I’ll take a photo of someone—they can be Asian or black or white, and I just really like their face. I want to take their face and put it into this image. Of course, that could be me just inventing a character too—I’m not going to deny that—but a lot of times, it’s the face. It’s hard to describe. Sometimes, I see something in a photo and think, that’d be really interesting to draw. What would that mean if I drew that, and how would it take on a different sort of identity or form if I took these things out of context and recreated it in this way? A lot of my work is decontextualized—there’s no background because there’s enough information on the face as it is. I don’t need to give it some fields of glory and Tuscan villas.

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