Toyin Ojih Odutola, A Countervailing Theory at the Barbican
From the beginning I could feel something. The first glance just took me in the story, in the drawing. I saw a reflection of myself, looking for answers outside, when they dwell within. I saw someone ponder over their life and immerse their mind into the universe. Plunged in the dark, guided by drums and mystical instruments sounds, I found some kind of spiritual guiding through the life of the characters. Such is how I first experienced the exhibition A Countervailing Theory by the great Toyin Ojih Odutola at the Curve gallery, Barbican. The show is accompanied by the immersive soundscape ‘Ceremonies Within’ by Peter Adjaye using multiple instruments and elements: classical strings, natural elements: wind, water, electronic and West African instruments: ogene (double bells) okpola (woodblock) igba (cylinder drum).
The exhibition presents 40 monochromatic drawings as a story in a graphic-novel-like story executed with pastels, charcoal and chalk. A Countervailing Theory shows the discovery of shale rocks with pictographic markings on Jos Plateau State, Nigeria by an archaeologist, bearing the name of the artist. The rocks are telling the story of a civilisation older than the Nok (one of the first societies settled in Sub-Saharan Africa) where two tribes were living together: the Eshu, women warrior who ruled over the Koba, humanoid men made by the Eshu and serving them. Both are forbidden to have intercourse or emotional relationships outside the same sex, gender, and class. The story is about two characters Akanke, from the Eshu and Aldo, from the Koba, who develop a relationship. We are witness of their development through life, in an oppressive society where restrictions prevent them being themselves.
We see in the first paintings the development and indoctrination of the two characters in their respective tribes. Later, they must leave their partners and travel for work together. They discover each other through this travel and realised their shared views on the oppressive system that rules their lives. An incident happens back home: a Koba killed an Eshu by attacking their shadow – symbol of personhood and awareness, consciousness, and wholeness – and manages to escape. Aldo and Akanke arrive late back home, and Aldo is accused of the murder and sentenced to death.
The twins represent both their parents and will change the history of the two tribes. The last two images represent first the twins and then Akanke and Aldo finally together publicly, anchored in the natural world like a pillar, a symbol of their union as a disruption of the system. And just like that, a myth is created.
Toyin Ojih Odutola (b.1985) is an artist born in Nigeria, she now lives and works in America. Her practice is distinctive in the fact that she uses specific materials -pen pencil, pastel, charcoal, chalk - and produce incredible works mainly focused on the rendering of skin. For Ojih Odutola using pens represents a writing tool as well as a drawing tool, and as she draws her characters, she also writes a story often ending in series of artworks. Her subject is often centred around the self and its development within society and for this exhibition, she gives us this analyses in a reverse type of oppression. To countervail means to counter the effect of something by presenting something of equal force, such is how her subject stands. In many ways, the exhibition has a mean to countervail: questioning power and its influence – she sees it as corrupting whoever owns it; questioning forms of love – introducing homosexuality as the norm; and using white on black rather than black on white drawings. For this exhibition, Toyin creates another past, another mythology where the viewer is free to imagine and build their own interpretations.
In my views it is also a criticism of African people being indoctrinated in a colonialist system that do not mean to help them through a true understanding of themselves and their history. A system that is here to define who they have to be and how they have to behave. With current political unrest in Africa, it is obvious that the youth are opening their eyes to the effect of colonialism and react to it. Being born in Nigeria and living in America is most probably deeply linked with this quest of the self. I see a reflection of herself in the formation and development of the self, where living and growing might have been a challenging thing to do in a society that does not entirely embrace who you are, whether it be for what you look like or what you stand for.
We are living in amazing and terrible times at once, where ideas and values are challenged through a pandemic and where a people is finally reacting to dictatorial, violent, corrupted and colonialist governments. The past is challenged, re learned and must be understood by all.