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


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.

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.

You work primarily with pen and ink—are you thinking of incorporating any other tools?

Yeah. I have acrylic ink underneath, markers, ink wash, and I work with a variety of surfaces. It’s all white background when you see it digitally, but the actual surface could be a really glossy board or a really toothy paper and that literally looks completely different in person than when it’s scanned and put online. The surface is very important because the tactility of the work is really, really interesting. The geography to me is the story, and when you create something that’s very sort of striated, and heavily layered and textured, that to me is like a story. You read that story through those lines—the surface of that is also equally important. If you have a very rough textured paper, that adds to the story of the face. I hope I don’t do pen ink the rest of my life. I’m sure that’ll probably destroy me in a few years.

You give the viewer access to your work on your site. Why?

One of the reasons I wanted to start the blog is because I wanted to show people the process of the work and also how boring it is. When I started the blog in 2009 there was this sort of myth around artists. Being an artist is not that grand. It’s you, alone in a studio, drawing or painting, and it is very tedious and repetitive. Sometimes you’ll go over things and it won’t look like change, but it is a huge change for you, so I would always update those things on my page. It is a very long process. But that’s why you do it—you do it because you love it.

Do you think people have more of an appreciation for the process since they can see it on your blog?

Yeah. The demystifying aspect of it, I think, really attracts people, ’cause it’s just very barebones. And I tell them each stage, or I play coy. For the most part, I think people appreciate something that’s straightforward. I think for some artists it’s better economically for them not to talk about their process, and that’s fine—that’s their business.

How so?

I was talking to someone in grad school and they were like, I would never post my process, someone might steal it.

I don’t know if I decided to take my ballpoint and draw something if that’d work out.

If someone happens to steal my process, good for them, ’cause it’s extremely tedious. If they can do it, I will personally come up to them and hug them and say, “You too, you too—great!” But I like the blog format because it also allows me to backtrack. I can go back and see things from a piece I did a month ago. How did I work that part out? How did I do that? You know, it actually helps me work with future work, so it serves both ways.

Who are some of your favorite artists?

Oh god! How much time do you have? I love Lucien Freud, almost obsessively. I cannot not say Kara Walker, because then I’d be doing a disservice to all black women artists—everywhere. Kerry James Marshall, of course. Gosh! There are a butt-load of Chinese artists, but I can’t remember their names right now. At. All. It’s a shame, ’cause they’re really good. Korehiko Hino, he’s a Japanese painter—really great painter. A lot of Japanese manga, which people would never think, but I love Japanese manga. I’ve read it since I was in grade school, and a lot of my style came from it. Uh, I should give cool answers, shouldn’t I?

No. You don’t want it to be a typical list, you want people to go and look it up. You got Kara Walker in there.

Yea, I got the prerequisites down. But yeah, it’s a variety.

Why the Chinese artists?

One of the things that’s happening now is there are a lot of Chinese artists in blogs and art magazines. And so you read them, and you say, “Wow, that’s visually striking, and it’s so different aesthetically from anything I’ve seen before.” A lot of that work is coming from a different historical perspective, so a lot of what they’re painting, and colors they’re using, and the styles are just a different reference from what a Western-influenced artist has. It’s very inspiring to me because it says I can break the rules and still be aesthetically pleasing.

I really believe formally in work. I think sometimes there’s a lot about the message and not about how formal it is, and beauty—if you dare say the word—they’re very beautiful works. A lot of these Chinese painters and draftsmen and printmakers make just really powerful stuff—very detailed. For me, if you put a lot of detail and a lot of time into the work, it’s a gift to the viewer: I’m gorging on this—it’s so beautiful and luscious! That’s sort of what I’m really interested in—opulence and aesthetic.

China is a ways away—you’re in Alabama right now. What’s the art scene like there?

It’s very crafty. It’s interesting. I’m actually right next to a collective called Lowe Mill, and they own studios that you rent out, and they’re pretty nice. There are a lot of people here that have gallery representation in New York. It’s super-cheap to live here, and you just go to New York when you have to work—that’s your job. I’ve always thought I was going to move to New York at some point—it’s like what you do. But right now, with student loans and everything, it’s not really feasible—the dream is not practical.

What’s next?

There are a lot of group shows all over the States. They’re all kind of happening. It’s exciting. I’m kind of shocked that people want me in their museums and galleries. I always look at my work and think, this is so weird—people are gonna think my drawings are aliens. My brother always walks in and says, “Why do you draw me so weird?” Sorry, it’s kind of what I like.