In A Matter of Fact at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora, Toyin Ojih Odutola presents an elaborately conceived and completely imaginary history of the UmuEze Amara clan, as chronicled in a series of portrait drawings in pastel, charcoal, and pencil. A wall text in the main gallery states that these works were selected from the family’s extensive holdings of art and antiquities by the present Marquess (a title of nobility, sometimes spelled marquis, designating a rank below a duke but above a count). By focusing on this specific part of the fictitious family’s collection, the text tells us that the Most Honorable Jideofor Emeka and his husband Lord Temitope Omodele hope “[t]o engage visitors in the experience of life within a great Nigerian house as well as present an intimate family portrait beyond the public image of respectability.”
Signing her name to this statement as “Deputy Private Secretary” to the family, Ojih Odutola sets in motion a story told in pictures: a graphic novel of sorts about indolent aristocrats surrounded by the trappings of wealth. In the brightly colored, high-ceilinged rooms she has imagined, gold becomes a framing device. It surrounds the many pictures hung everywhere, is woven into rugs and drapes, and even covers the molding that decorates most of the walls. There are gold buttons, watches, pens and piping, a gold cup and teapot, and even what appears to be a cloth-of-gold dress.
The show begins with a double portrait of two men standing side by side in vivid and elaborately patterned suits, their knuckles touching lightly. Titled Newlyweds on Holiday, this seems to be a picture of the current Marquess and his husband. Some poses do have the deliberate appearance of a commissioned sitting, such as that of the formidable Marchioness in white silk pajamas and a full-length fur coat (in tropical Nigeria!), or a mother and daughter on horseback, straight-backed and formal in exquisite riding clothes. Most, however, seem snapshot-casual, cropped at times with a deliberate awkwardness. In Lazy Sunday, the top of a lanky young woman’s head is truncated by the paper’s edge. In The Enlightenment of the Second Son, which portrays a young man in striped pink and gray pajamas with, his foreshortened arms thrust toward us, the left side of the drawing elides his knee.
Ojih Odutola has talked about artists she admires, and some of those influences are at play here: painters like Kerry James Marshall, Paula Rego, Lynette Yiiadom-Boakye, or the great portraitist John Singer Sargent. Still, there is a degree of abstraction and generalization that suggests the work of David Hockney as much as anyone else—particularly his portraits from the late ’60s, in which the place and space of class and wealth is represented as vividly as its inhabitants. In addition, Ojih Odutola’s pictures invoke another source she has cited in the past: comic books, with their strongly graphic narratives and tipped perspectives.
For the most part, subjects in her earlier drawings have been isolated from their environment, often set against white or monochromatic backgrounds. From the start of what has been only the opening decade of her career (she is in her early thirties), Ojih Odutola’s “signature” invention has been an extraordinarily rich language for depicting the sheen and texture of the skin of her Black subjects, which she creates using primarily ballpoint pen and markers. Hauntingly beautiful, breathtakingly labor-intensive, and magnetically attractive, the scarified surfaces of her drawings recall things as disparate as actual tribal practices of cutting/tattooing and the Ife portrait sculpture of Nigeria (though Ojih Odutola denies having been aware of such things when she began drawing this way), and Leon Golub’s flayed, scraped canvases.
The sheer amount of work completed within a short period of time (all eighteen drawings are dated from 2016) means that some works in the exhibition are more convincing than others. Ojih Odutola seems to be finding her way with color and scale, translating the way she draws the texture of skin and hair into finding inventive approaches to clothing and furnishings. A grouping in the smaller back room of the show brings together some of the strongest works. The mother and daughter on horseback, their quiet faces implacably black against the blue and white of the sky; the marchioness in her chair (the walls in the gallery have been painted the same rich red as the room in this painting); and Selective Histories, a wry close-up of a wall of heavily framed paintings, hung salon-style and surrounding a tribal mask. Wearing two heavy silver rings, the index finger of someone’s right hand reaches into the frame to touch the mask’s cheek. Still, as mysterious as this composition might be, nothing in the room is as compelling as the Marchioness’s white clothes—simultaneously fantastically strange and mesmerizing. Their draping lines have been abstracted and then divided into areas of cream and the palest blue, with gray lines that suggest the leading of a stained glass window. Improbably, Ojih Odutola has made pajamas into a matriarch’s armor, like the rigid style of 16th-century court dress.
If only the drawing of the architecture of the room around her could make up its mind about whether it is intended to be equally imaginary, or is meant to describe the space with rigorous perspective. This slightly indecisive quality appears in some other compositions; textures or patterns are sometimes only summarily invoked, and people or objects are depicted as if they are not really in the same space. Working from photographs, as she surely does, creates a certain kind of composition, one that is sometimes shaped differently by the camera’s eye than it would be by our own. Still, as Ojih Odutola suggests, the best way to view these figures may be to suspend judgment “and escape into the lives of this great house.” It’ll be interesting to see where this cast of characters will go from here.
A Matter of Fact is on view at Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco through April 2, 2017.