On ViewJack Shainman Gallery
September 10 – October 31, 2020
Toyin Ojih Odutola is a master at visualizing narrative. In previous series, including “When Legends Die,” she constructed a fictional Nigerian family whose lineage and wealth she elaborated over several years. The effect was both a reclamation of Blackness and an assertion of its importance. Viewers basked in the nonchalance of Black luxury, kinship, and relaxation outside of the parameters of a white gaze and were treated to colorful tapestries of art, landscape, fashion, and other forms of expression. Tell Me A Story, I Don’t Care If It’s True continues to mine the terrain of visual narrative, but here, Ojih Odutola is interested in the space between words and images.
Tell Me A Story, I Don’t Care If It’s True is comprised of portraits of Black people made from colored pencil, graphite, and ink. These are not images of capture—no one seems to acknowledge the viewers. Even those who are presented head-on do not quite meet the viewer’s eye. I read this as a subtle form of resistance. It occupies an affective frequency below refusal; it does not contain any demand or urgency, but it does manage to convey annoyance at the idea that a portrait could presume to fully capture.
That dissonance is echoed by the fragments of narrative with which Ojih Odutola pairs some of these portraits. While face and narrative occupy the same frame, the tension between the two is where the story forms. All of the utterances are in the first person. Some like Save Face (2020) are issued in a straightforward manner: “I’ve Never Lied—Never Had To,” sits facing a woman rendered in graphite standing outside wearing a turtleneck, headwrap, gold earrings with her eyes downcast—toward her unseen hands perhaps? In others, such as 10 Minutes (2020) fragments are styled as interviews; “If you could be anyone for five minutes a day, who would you be? … I guess … someone who understands?” granting us access to the presumed subject in contemplative repose on bright green grass.
In each portrait, Ojih Odutola dwells on the face, the swirls of her pencils or pen illuminating contours, muscles, and emotions that flit across these faces. This emphasis on the minutia of emotion makes the images captivating and also elusive. It is up to the viewer to decide whether the emotions match the narrative. A game that illuminates just how many layers of sociality and judgment are at work in seeing. We look to see if there is a gap between the emotion in the image and those in the narrative. Is the woman in Save Face looking away because she is lying? Or, is she so secure in her truth that her presence is assertion enough. Likewise, does the breezy pose in 10 Minutes highlight a youthful, playful preoccupation with the questions of “what if” or does the portrait illustrate a person who does understand and whose calm radiates from that place?
We become suspicious viewers, aware all at once of the multiple possibilities that circulate. Mobilizing this narrative and affective instability is explicitly one of Ojih Odutola’s aims—it is apparent in the show’s title Tell Me a Story, I Don’t Care If It Is True and in the accompanying press release where she writes, “I’m often fascinated with how miscommunications happen and what the imagination conjures in misconstrued spaces—the gulfs between what is intended and how it is received.” There are many places for that suspicion to land. It is the bedrock of semiotics and, as Ojih Odutola remarks later in the press release, suspicion forms a large part of our current political landscape of fake news and overt lies, but there are other lessons to take as well.
The gap between image and narrative that produces suspicion is also the gap that belies imagination. In this way, this series reminds us that it is still a gift to see so many different forms of Black expressivity circulate, especially in relation to interiority and play. The presumption behind telling a story highlights the importance of the ability to self-author. Further, this access to so many strangers, their thoughts, and their faces (unmasked) feels like an explosion of intimacy and connection during this moment of isolation. In this way Tell Me A Story, I Don’t Care If It’s True reminds us of the pleasures of voyeurism and moments when the possibility of falsehood offers flirtation and fun, rather than looming terror. These are portraits of buoyancy and possibility from which we might learn to re-engage narrative with vigor and whimsy.