Back in early March 2012, I reviewed Mark Bradford’s solo show at SFMOMA and learned shortly thereafter that the oft-repeated narrative about the circumstances of his early work—that he grew up in poverty in a depressed African-American neighborhood of Los Angeles—was simply not true (he was raised in Santa Monica, an affluent suburb). Given that I’ve heard this myth repeated even by knowledgeable curators, I shared my concerns with artist Toyin Odutola and was surprised to learn that even though she is in the early stages of her career, she is already encountering similar circumstances. Creating the narrative around art, framing its situation and contingencies, is always a tricky endeavor, but perhaps more so when the artist is of color and the myth-makers are white. I set out to talk with Odutola in more depth about her own work and process, and the way in which an artist—especially a successful artist of color—may or may not be able to control the story of her own work. In addition to being talented and modest (always a winning combination), Odutola is an articulate and energetic speaker. What follows is part of our conversation from mid-July.
Bean Gilsdorf: Let’s begin with the question that’s usually asked last in interviews: what are you doing next? You’re going to Japan?
Toyin Odutola: Yes. Japan is a graduation present to myself, I really want to be in the place where it all started for me. I come from a comic-book background, from manga. In Japan I’m going to visit museums, get some Japanese papers and pens… Then when I get back, I’m going to a printmaking residency at the Tamarind Institute in August, which is really exciting. And I’m going to have a solo show at my gallery in April next year. Now the pressure’s on, because the first show was a tester and this is the real thing.
BG: Do you think Japan is going to have an influence on your work? Will it change what you’re working on for the show?
TO: I find myself returning to manga a lot lately and just noticing more aesthetic cues. I’m planning to go to cartoon museums in Tokyo, I really just want to be exposed to as much as possible. And I also really want to look at surface. One of the issues I’ve been having—and I think this would help with my show—is finding a really nice paper.
BG: I’m intrigued by the thought of you working at a printmaking residency, because the new pieces, the black-on-black drawings, look at lot like etching plates…
TO: Yeah, those are my way of saying, Toyin, I think it’s time to make some prints, and at Tamarind I can work with master printers who can show me how to do that properly. But the black-on-black pieces are still…tentative, just kind of not there yet. And a lot of that has to do with the ink and the paper, issues that can be resolved in making a print.
BG: It’s funny, you were working in black and white, then a jump into color for a little while, and then there was a dramatic shift into the black-on-black works.
TO: The reason I moved away from color is that I don’t have any concept of color whatsoever; it’s just lost on me. When I use color it’s not like painting where it’s part of the process, but it’s more like I lay it on, let it dry, and then the pen does all the work. That’s not really a proper way to go about making an artwork. There’s been a lot of interest in the color drawings, but I don’t feel like I have a handle on it. Now that I have time to think about it, I can see there there’s work that needs to be done.
BG: Now that you’re done with the MFA you can step away from it for a while.
TO: Yes, and I am going to go back to it eventually. But for this show, I know I’d like to do something similar to the black-on-black work. I’m taking my camera with me to Japan to take photos of Japanese people and draw them…and of course I’m thinking about what that means.
BG: That’s going to be a big shift, too.
TO: Completely. There have been a lot of write-ups of my work—I’ve been really fortunate—but it’s like black artist, black, black, but really, what is a black portrait? It can be anything. People allocate me to this “African-American Woman Artist” category, which is fine, that’s what I am, whatever—but it doesn’t mean that my subjects are that. So to do something with Japanese people would be fun, to play with the idea of the black portrait. What makes a black portrait? Are they black portraits because I’m black and I’m making these, or because they are the color black? I’m playing with the concept of blackness and what that means.
BG: I love the idea of exploring blackness culturally and conceptually. When the Mark Bradford show was at SFMOMA you and I talked about cultural expectations and the biographical narrative of an artist of color, and of course I’ve been thinking a lot about your work and the narrative that’s becoming linked to your work. I know you’ve questioned some of the interactions you’ve had…
TO: Sometimes I wonder why the artist has to be such a factor in the work. Obviously, context is import and it can be important to know about the artist’s life, to know what went into the work, what made the portrait in terms of what surrounded it. But these days we’re so obsessed with branding and it becomes less about the work itself and more about the branding of the artist without regard to the work standing on its own. I’ve had moments when people come up to me and they have this idea of who I am, and they’re like, “Yes, you’re from Africa! And you came to America! And you’re making these works that are so African!” And then they find out that I was raised in America, in the middle-class South, and they’re completely turned off by that and it’s disturbing. Recently I talked to LaToya Ruby Frazier and she said, “What image do you want to project about your work and about yourself? Because you’re going to lose control of that immediately if you don’t control it right now.” Like Mark Bradford, it’s going to be made into this myth.
BG: I’m interested in how you think the dialogue can be controlled. Like the artwork itself, once it leaves your studio it’s open to interpretation. So how do you take control?
TO: You really can’t. It’s all about who deems your work worthy of being talked about and what they find interesting. I do feel like I belong to the contemporary Nigerian landscape, I’m very proud of that and I’m not trying to sever that. I also feel that I’m very American, African-American. This is going to sound mad naïve, but when I see work by Elizabeth Payton or Lucian Freud, I think why can’t I just do that, where it’s about the drawing and the surface and the materials? Conceptually, that’s more interesting to me. It’s fair to say that I’m interested in blackness through portraits, but not necessarily of black people. I’m exploring the platform and what it can do.
BG: Working with the idea of representation and the portrait…
TO: I’ve been struggling with this for a while. I’m not interested in a binary argument, the black person in a white world, I’m not taking on that burden. The most interesting thing about race, to me, is how we feel we represent ourselves and why we have so many issues with representing darkness. It’s made me really delve into making the figures darker with less contrast, to see how much I can obscure the black body and make it as dark as possible, and what does that even mean? As I work I question the process: Do you have to be black to make black art? Do I have to be a black person drawing black people, can I draw white people?
BG: But the work has been really successful. You’ve had a sold-out show in Chelsea, you were given a solid shout-out in Artforum, you’ve been doing interviews, group shows, collectors lining up, am I right?
TO: Yeah, but nothing’s ever certain.
BG: That’s very humble.
TO: The one thing that I wonder about people who are successful, is when does that ever stop? Do you ever stop get to stop thinking okay, where is my career going next, how am I controlling my image, is my gallerist working for me? There is no pinnacle of success anymore because there are so many ways to be “successful.”
BG: That’s true. There’s not one single path.
TO: Yeah, it’s definitely broadened, especially with the Internet. Every time I think about success I think about that thing Neil Gaiman said, something like, “It’s so fucking weird because you become successful not knowing why you’re successful, you don’t really know what it is because you’ve been doing the same shit all the time.” I was really glad that I just did what I wanted in school, but now that I’m out there’s all this pressure. It’s been scary because I get an idea and think, this might be cool or it might fail spectacularly. But, honestly, the daily story of my working life is not that interesting. It’s really not that grand at all.
BG: I think the issues you’ve been struggling with are pretty intriguing. The dilemma of identity and how to control your biographical narrative, and the concepts of representation and race are pretty closely linked. And I think it’s important to know that what looks like unadulterated success from the outside is still, on the inside, a journey of experimentation and wrestling with ideas.
TO: One thing that has been problematic for me especially is drawing the black female body. It’s so contentious, so loaded a territory to explore. So I’ve been working on the black male nude, and I showed my first portrait to a friend, and he said, “The first thing I think about is slaves. I know you didn’t think this at all, but that’s how it looks to me.” So I’ve been really having a problem with portraying the nude body. I say “nude,” but I should clarify that here’s a difference between a nude, which is a spectacle, and a naked body, which is things as they are. I should say “naked.” Naked is something I’m very interested in, it someone as they are, there’s no clothing to indicate a time, no trinkets or tropes, it’s just the person. Because it’s so bare, it’s open and vulnerable…but it also has an inner strength.