Made Famous on the Set of ‘Empire,’ Artist Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Opulent Portraits Dazzle at the Whitney Museum

The Nigerian-born artist's exhibition, "To Wander Determined," presents a corrective to a Eurocentric art history.

Toyin Ojih Odutola, Representatives of State (2016/2017). ©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
Toyin Ojih Odutola, Representatives of State (2016/2017). ©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Upon entering Toyin Ojih Odutola‘s recently opened show at the Whitney Museum, visitors see a letter by the artist posted on the wall, written in the persona of the “Deputy Private Secretary” for two aristocratic families in Lagos. The entwined narrative of these two noble houses forms the backstory for the show, titled “To Wander Determined.” For Ojih Odutola, their images form a corrective to a Eurocentric art history that thinks of both court portraiture and genre paintings as belonging to a primarily white world, with black characters as footnotes—cast as servants, slaves, or left out completely.

The opulence of bespoke suits worn by figures in The Newlyweds on Holiday (2016), and the gold jewelry adorning the male figure as he surveys his family’s land, are overt markings of class. In Winter Dispatch (2017), crests are embedded in the details of interior scenes, embossed on stationary scattered on the leather desk blotter, and adorning gilded frames the background.

A more subtle theme in “To Wander Determined” is suggested by the landscapes that we glimpse beyond the figures in the artist’s various portraits, representing the opportunity to travel, the privilege of holidays and adventures. The attention to detail in each of Ojih Odutola’s compositions hearkens back to the iconography of Renaissance portraiture, married with the contemporary stylistic flair that first earned her a cult following after her work was featured on Fox’s music-industry drama Empire in 2015.

Below, see artworks from the show.

Toyin Ojih Odutola's Winter Dispatch (2016). ©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Winter Dispatch (2016). ©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Toyin Ojih Odutola's <i>Surveying the Family Seat</i> (2017). ©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Surveying the Family Seat (2017). ©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Installation view, "To Wander Determined" at the Whitney. ©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Installation view, “To Wander Determined” at the Whitney Museum. Left: The Missionary (2017), R: By Her Design (2017). ©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Toyin Ojih Odutola's <i>Industry (Husband and Wife)</i> (2017). ©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Industry (Husband and Wife) (2017). ©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Toyin Ojih Odutola's Wall of Ambassadors (2017). ©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Wall of Ambassadors (2017). ©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Toyin Ojih Odutola's <i>Newlyweds On Holiday</i> (2016). ©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Newlyweds On Holiday (2016). ©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Excavations (2017). ©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

 

To Wander Determined” is on view at the Whitney Museum through February 25. 


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