Nigerian-American artist Toyin Ojih Odutola has a new show at the Whitney and one claim to fame on TV: Empire’s set designers once used one of her drawings as a centerpiece, behind Taraji P. Henson and Tasha Smith on a patterned wall in the show’s season 2 premiere. The portrait, titled Hold It in Your Mouth a Little Longer, explores notions of identity while challenging gender and racial stereotypes, themes the artist continues to explore in her first solo museum exhibition in New York, “To Wander Determined,” opening today at the Whitney.
Ojih Odutola is best known for self-portrait drawings penned in black ink. She now uses charcoal, pastels, and pencil in newer works that are featured in “To Wander Determined.” In a series of colorful portraits, the exhibition chronicles the lives of two fictional, aristocratic Nigerian families. Co-curator Rujeko Hockley thinks Ojih Odutola’s use of fictional characters mines a more limitless trove of perspectives to convey multidimensional messages in her work. “Toyin Ojih Odutola is an encyclopedic and expansive thinker, whose references and interests are equally vast,” she wrote in an email. “Why be limited to the realm of the ‘real,’ when you have the entirety of human history, creativity, geography, and thought at your disposal?”
The families move within everyday domesticity as a backdrop: A man sits on a bench, holding a scarf. A pregnant woman rests her hand on a green chair. Another woman’s face appears in a portrait hung on a wall, above a vase of lilies; her steady gaze is vibrant and striking, like the colors on Ojih Odutola’s canvas. The viewer is presented with a stream of unanswered questions: When will the child be born? Which woman does the scarf in the man’s hand belong to? “This indeterminacy is what keeps us looking, keeps us asking questions, keeps us wondering and imagining — both about the people and places we see depicted in her work, as well as hopefully the larger world,” Hockley explains.
As part of Ojih Odutola’s recently announced residency at Barnard College, the artist will lead tours of the exhibition at the Whitney. Click ahead to preview the show.
“To Wander Determined” is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art from October 20 to February 25, 2018.