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Toyin Odutola "My Country Has No Name"

The Nigerian-born, Alabama-based artist discusses process, identity and selfies

by James Thorne
on 16 May 2013

A recent graduate of California College of the Arts, Toyin Odutola is already celebrating her second show at Jack Shainman Gallery in NYC. The energetic artist produces ink works on paper from her studio in Alabama, updating friends and fans through an active blog. At 27 years old, Odutola is unabashed of her millennial status, exclaiming of her self-portraits as she walks through the gallery, "There are a lot of selfies—let's just call it out!" But behind the humor, there is a seriousness. The exhibition, called "My Country Has No Name," takes on race, nationhood and identity through the fine tip of a ballpoint pen.

Nigerian-born Odutola's series of self-portraits takes the name "All These Garlands Prove Nothing," a reference to the artist's protean hair style. "The portraits go from me having this crazy afro to punk dreadlocks with a half-shaved head, long braids, this Grace Jones 'Eraserhead' look—but it's the idea of the artifice of a presentation and how malleable a persona is," she says. The artist also catalogues friends and family members; mostly young and mostly bored. "I like awkward or candid moments that just look off," Odutola continues. "Disillusioned and blah—it sort of represents our generation. We've seen so much and we're so bored."


Odutola seems to be fed up with the wall that traditionally hides process from final product. Her Tumblr is made up of candid shots of works in progress that are meant to explain her methodology. "I'll be honest—I started the blog because I grew up in the south where there was no access to any museums or galleries," she explains. "So my ticket to people was the internet. If I was going to get into this world that I had no idea how to navigate, I wanted it to be honest."

The surface effect—the result of layering pen on marker—gives Odutola's figures a distinctive shimmer and patchwork quality, and opinions differ on what to make of it. "People have a different response [to the effect] each time—I've heard muscle, hair, wires. Someone said it looks like a nightclub and there's a light show shining on the face." For the artist, the main visual component is the blocked-off quadrants that underly the surface-level work, a sort of puzzle that creates the planes of the face. In terms of color, Odutola has taken pains to represent a "multifaceted brown" that is applied to each subject, regardless of race.

Odutola's inclusion in Forbes' 30 Under 30 list for notable names in arts and style puts her in a league with artists like JR and Jacob Kassay. Despite her success, the artist remains humble. She thanks predecessors like Chuck Close, whose process-heavy portrait work was an influence early on, and apologizes for subjecting gallery-goers to so many pictures of her "mug."


"My Country Has No Name" runs at Jack Shainman Gallery through 29 June 2013.

Portrait by James Thorne; all other images courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

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