In the practical world, there are myriad shades of black. Anyone who's struggled with slightly mismatched black jackets and pants knows this to be true.
For artist Toyin Ojih Odutola, this quandary doesn't frustrate: It inspires.
In an August 2013 interview, the Nigerian-American portraitist recalled a moment of revelation: "I’m doing black on black on black, trying to make it as layered as possible in the deepness of the blackness to bring it out. I noticed the pen became this incredible tool. The black ballpoint ink on blackboard would become copper tone and I was like, 'Wow, this isn’t even black at all!'"
Layering shades and types of black media, she realized, could bend how the colors presented in surprising ways. "The blackboard was like this balancing platform for the ink to become something else," she said.
"Ballpoint pen ink is the reason I draw the way that I do," Ojih Odutola told The Huffington Post via email. Though in the past decade of work she's incorporated other media such as charcoal and marker into her repertoire, she's continued to explore the themes of skin, blackness and perception in her portraiture.
"Growing up in America as a black individual," said Ojih Odutola, who was born in Ife, Nigeria, and later moved to the U.S., "you can walk into any room and your skin is the first read. From this reality, I treat the skin of my subjects as an arena to expose contradictions -- to expand and constrict."
Her portraits, whether of white or black subjects, layer white on white and black on black, bringing out the texture and sheen of the skin rather than the shade or color we might typically perceive. "I build and build upon the surface various striations in layers," said Ojih Odutola. "Some may describe them as anatomical, sinewy or aesthetically reminiscent of hair. This style is none of those things: it's about texture, tactility and mezzanines."
What does that say about identity, but more interestingly, what does that say about what we are accustomed to seeing when we see an image of a face or bodies? Toyin Ojih Odutola
By distorting the representation of a quality that silently governs so much of America's social prejudices and injustices -- skin color -- her work pushes us to look at everything else about the subject.
"I became infatuated with this idea of filtering and transforming. Taking something concrete and very direct ... and messing it up," she explained. "It wasn't about masking the source, but about stretching how an image can be transformed, what it can become, how it can be misleading and also revealing."
Ojih Odutola found she wanted to question, more and more, how her work deconstructed our default views of identity, she said. She'd ask herself as she worked, "What does that say about identity, but more interestingly, what does that say about what we are accustomed to seeing when we see an image of a face or bodies?”
Unlike classical portraits, Ojih Odutola's may not even be recognizable to the subjects. "I never looked at portraits as indicative of the sitters in any way," she explained. "I looked at portraits as a means for the artist to create his or her own space to invent." As a Nigerian-American immigrant, finding a space of her own has been particularly vital. "It helps me deal with that lost, powerless feeling of wandering around as a Nigerian-American kid not feeling like the ground I was stepping on could truly be mine ... I wanted to create my own terrain."
In the landscapes she's created of her subjects' very skin, Ojih Odutola has succeeded at creating her own terrain; but more than that, she's found a way to help us all, slowly and deliberately, re-envision how we can see each other's faces and bodies, without easy categorizations.
Toyin Ojih Odutola's "Of Context and Without" will be on display from Dec. 11, 2015 through Jan. 30, 2016 at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York City. Check out more from the show below, and find more from the artist at her website.
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