at The Barbican, London (through 24 Jan 2021)
Reviewed by Christopher P Jones
Despite what intuition tells us, history is constantly changing. The revision of the past happens all around us and at all times, sometimes perniciously and sometimes for enlightened reasons. For her first exhibition in the UK, Toyin Ojih Odutola has done a brave and remarkable thing. She has created an entire origin-myth that not only revisits ancient African history but invents it. Through 40 new works specially commissioned for the Curve Gallery at London’s Barbican Centre, Ojih Odutola has hand-drawn a fictional prehistoric civilisation dominated by female rulers and served by males labourers.
Ojih Odutola, who was born in Nigeria, raised in Alabama and now lives in New York, is best known for her colour-saturated portraits with their distinct focus on contemporary notions of identity.
In this exhibition, her preference for vivid colouration has been replaced by a strictly monochrome palette. Titled A Countervailing Theory, the London show falls somewhere between Grecian classical frieze, Hogarthian social allegory and graphic-novel storyboard. The single wall space – a 90-metre “curve” of gallery wall – is replete with life-size figures drawn in white pastel and chalk onto black surfaces (as opposed, notably, to dark tones on white). The works lead away into the distance along the curved wall, superbly lit, so as to draw you into a tunnel-like panorama.
Initially, it’s hard to say what the artist is presenting. Figures apparently hewn and scored with metal are dropped into a landscape of primaeval mountains and swamps. Figures are silent and brooding, drawn as if their skin is rippling with movement, perhaps even with half-formed thoughts. These pre-language prototypes find themselves sprawled over lily ponds and rock piles. In these early images, Ojih Odutola uses tightly packed parallel lines to create fields of horizontal and vertical backdrops that give the impression of land in a state of becoming – rock formations inspired by the geology of the Plateau State in central Nigeria.
Then, after a time, a narrative begins to emerge. From picture titles such as This is How You Were Made and Early Embodiment [see Slideshow below], you realise that the story being told is a genesis tale.
The myth that Ojih Odutola has invented is given the express characteristic of being female-dominated. As the exhibition text informs, each community, female and male, is forbidden from forging sexual relationships with the other (a mirror-image of present-day Nigeria where same-sex public displays of affection carry a 10-year jail term). The men keep their eyes down, are nude and obedient, while the women stand above them like Spartans warriors, supreme and dominant.
Before long, procreation has somehow started and children emerge, just as the landscape has begun to solidify into great rock crystals and the first signs of organic flora appear. Ojih Odutola’s attention to narrative flow never falters and only gathers more weight as signs of civilisation materialise: female figures are shown wearing clothes, and later, more elaborate costumes that speak of a developing hierarchy. Farming has also begun, as large pumpkin-like vegetables are seen sprouting from the earth.
The men have by now been fully engaged as the subordinate sex, whose only consolation is in the arms of one another. The women carry clubs and loom over their subordinates. Tribes turn into armies, while the downtrodden have been organised into ranks of slaves. Laws get broken. A rebellion is suppressed. A female ruler or high-priestess sits imperially on a throne, garnered in jewels and a headdress. The civilisation has reached its first maturity.
Ojih Odutola ends the exhibition with something of a twist in the tail. In a wall-mounted text shown opposite the final drawing, the artist adopts the guise of a contemporary archaeologist. Here, she presents a fictionalised explanation of the drawings’ history, explaining that they were discovered during a Chinese mining exploration in Nigeria, where “initial results reveal pictorial markings indicative of a civilisation predating the oldest civilisation indigenous to the region.” The artefacts shown therefore challenge “known empirical and historical records of biodiversity and multiculturalism native to central Nigeria.”
Ojih Odutola has spoken before about using her art to build a topography, a landscape for viewers to traverse, where the beginnings and endings remain open. “I always like to put people in positions that look very awkward and look like they’re about to do something or they just did something. So there’s nothing to pin them down. You don’t quite know where they’re going to go. That’s my way of fighting the expectation that people have, about Blackness, Black people and Black stories.”
There is also something extraordinarily serendipitous about this exhibition. Originally scheduled to open in the spring of this year, the coronavirus pandemic delayed its opening until August. During that time, the explosion of energy released over the death of George Floyd undoubtedly casts the Barbican show in a different light. To be offered a creation myth in which the development of civilisation is presented as an all-Black phenomenon, at a time when movements such as Black Lives Matter have garnered important headlines inches, only sharpens the exhibition’s impact.
Ojih Odutola, however, does more than simply reassert the fundamental importance of the continent of Africa and its diaspora. Her creation myth is as much to do with the relations of the sexes and about the reimagining of human history as it is with Black subjugation. The country of her birth is clearly in her sights, perhaps as a challenge to the present-day conservatism and religious tensions that are proving so harmful to women’s rights and same-sex relationships in Nigeria.
Finally, it should be mentioned that the exhibition benefits enormously from the ever-present soundtrack that echoes, tinkles and drones throughout the entire gallery space. The Ghanaian-British conceptual sound artist Peter Adjaye provided the soundscape, and in doing so, has added a further layer of sensory intrigue into which the visitor can immerse and transform themselves.
Christopher P Jones is London Art Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Mr. Jones speculates on art, history, fiction and fact, and the meeting place of all four. He is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction.