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Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits show black skin as textured and diverse

Nigerian visual artist Toyin Ojih Odutola’s new collection of drawings is a playful yet provocative exploration of power and representation in conventional art

By Taahirah Martin on 13 August

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Born in Nigeria and raised in Alabama, Toyin Ojih Odutola’s latest collection Testing the Name is the next chapter in an ongoing fictional story about two Nigerian aristocratic families who are joined together by the marriage of two men. Her solo exhibition at the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia, is a continuation of the first chapter that was on display at the Whitney Museum in the recent exhibition To Wander Determined.

Combining traditional portraiture, which historically only featured white subjects and modern techniques, Toyin builds an interesting narrative based on personal observations. She depicts her scenes in pastel, pencil and charcoal, creating layered drawings that explore the construct of skin colour. Instead of a subject that is simply either black or white, Odutola transforms skin into complex shaded strands.

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An evocative aspect of Toyin’s work is the scale. Known for her floor-to-ceiling, elaborate style, her portraits command attention. “What does my skin feel like? There’s enough about what my skin looks like but what does it feel like? So a lot of the layers and the scale is to really press down and get a feel of the texture,” she explains.

Toyin was recently honoured by Amref Health Africa, the largest African-led international organisation providing training and health services to over 30 countries in the continent, at the ArtBall, where she received the prestigious Rees Visionary Award. ArtBall is a contemporary African art auction and philanthropic event that aims to raise funds and awareness for Amref Health Africa.

She is currently exhibiting her latest collection The Firmament in New Hampshire.

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Follow Toyin’s work on her website http://toyinojihodutola.com.

The article was first published on Design Indaba. This is part of an exchange programme between Design Indaba and Design Fabric to introduce the rich works coming out of Africa's art and design scene to South Asia, and connect one culture to another.

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