A Countervailing Theory – the visual language of speculative storytelling
In her “imagined, ancient myth”, Toyin Ojih Odutola uses narrative to rewrite an expansive history of the Jos Plateau outside of a eurocentric legacy.
This exhibition review of ‘A Countervailing Theory’ is written by Jennifer Brough. The exhibition is due to open at the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art Aalborg from 21st April until 30th May 2021. When Jennifer wrote this blog, it was on display at the Barbican, London. We recommend checking out this video walkthrough of the display, narrated by Ojih Odutola.
Toyin Ojih Odutola is interested in the art of the maybe, a speculative world that could be, one born out of imagination.
Known for her unique style of portraiture and the deep, textured skin of her subjects, Ojih Odutola’s topography of the flesh is unmistakable. Her large body of work is populated by richly layered characters, whose depth is enhanced by the light and shade built up by building and blending colour. She works from photography, populating her canvases with “a composite of multiple people.”
A Countervailing Theory is a site-specific installation for The Curve at the Barbican — the artist’s first-ever UK commission. Ojih Odutola is also the first woman artist of African descent to exhibit at The Curve, a significance not lost in a city home to the British Museum, and the artifacts of dubious origin within it.
The 90-metre curved gallery displays forty monochromatic drawings, created using pastel, charcoal and chalk on gessoed linen and board, scored by conceptual sound artist Peter Adjaye’s immersive soundscape.
The exhibition explores an ancient myth conceived by the artist. Set within a surreal landscape inspired by the rock formations of Plateau State in central Nigeria, Ojih Odutola’s work depicts a prehistoric civilisation in which women rulers are served by male labourers and same-sex relationships are the norm.
There are elements of afrofuturism in this conceived past, as one drawing, “This Is How You Were Made; Final Stages,” demonstrates how male labourers are stitched together. Several drawings illustrate the organisational structure of this society, as well as the consequences of breaking its rules, such as forging a heterosexual relationship (as two characters do, trying and failing to overthrow the system).
The overall effect of the large panels is akin to a graphic novel or storyboard that moves through time and space, weaving an immersive chronological narrative that the viewer is encouraged to piece together.
[Toyin Ojih Odutola, A Countervailing Theory, 2020 Installation view, The Curve, Barbican, 11 August 2020 – 24 January 2021 © Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York Photo: Tim Whitby / Getty Images].
It is easy to become entranced with the depth and beauty of Ojih Odutola’s drawings. Her skill is undeniable, beguiling the viewer into believing the narrative she creates. The exhibition closes with a tongue-in-cheek message further legitimising the narrative, signed as the Director of the Jos Plateau Research Initiative, adding a layer of fiction to her fiction.
In this clever nod to questions of legitimacy and recognition of whose stories occupy museum spaces and history books, Ojih Odutola’s work discovers a world outside of colonial, eurocentric trappings.
But while her work challenges colonial history and normative gender roles, it is far from a utopia. There is extractive mining, both from the labour the male characters are forced to exert, and one from the artist’s mining of an inner history challenging “preconceived notions and the implicit biases” she held.
The artist’s honesty is refreshing, recognising that mistake-making and difficulties are essential parts of creating and re-creating. Her extensive research into the Jos Plateau and experimenting with narrative lead to one of her research questions, “What would it look like if women were the only imperialists in known histories across the globe?”
The exhibition’s title, A Countervailing Theory, references the idea of countering an existing power with an equal force. Her research played with “concepts of countervailing” and examined geological surveys, academic publications, and photographs of the Jos Plateau. Flipping the script, Ojih Odutola’s narrative usurps “the preconceived notions of an audience, but my own as the creator of this work,” and challenges notions of who the oppressor can be, and biases around power.
The exhibition was conceived after two incidents, firstly reading about rock formations arranged by an ancient civilisation in central Nigeria, and secondly, discussions on the Ife head and its creation. A German archeologist proposed that Greeks from Atlantis were behind the latter, keen to place the object within western history. Incorrect, of course, this prompted Ojih Odutola to think, “Who has a right to create their own stories? I wanted to create a work of art that, visually, stood apart from occidental picture-making, that felt very “other””.
Elsewhere, Ojih Odutola said that the exhibition was a way to dissociate herself from “the belief that representation alone is the answer to emancipation, and instead see its true role: mainstream legibility and legitimacy.” Rather her work prioritises a narrative that “liberated my thinking from that static endpoint into more interesting questions: from “who is this figure addressing?” to “where is this picture leading?"”
This rejection of representation liberates the artist and her subjects from “the simplicity of the gaze” to create new meanings through her speculative, disruptive narrative — a practice of infinite artistic possibility.