Toyin Ojih Odutola: When Legends Die

JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY | SEPTEMBER 6, 2018 – OCTOBER 27, 2018

“In humanity, quiet is inevitable, essential. It is a simple, beautiful part of what it means to be alive. It is already there, if one is looking to understand it.”1

Toyin Ojih Odutola, Heir Apparent, 2018. Pastel, charcoal and pencil on paper, 63 1/4 × 42 inches. Courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery.

A man lies in repose in a tub. He holds his upper body outside of the water, elbows outside the tub as he looks past the viewer. This appears to be a moment of quiet contemplation. Above the tiled backsplash, the bathroom is adorned with two African masks and a large painting. The cropping of the painting is such that we do not see the faces, though we do know that we are seeing fashionable men in casual postures—hand in pocket, knee bent, hip shifted to one side. For those who have been following Toyin Ojih Odutola’s work, the image, one of TH Lord Temitope Omodele and his husband TMH Lord Jideofor Emeka on their honeymoon, is recognizable from her show To Wander Determined at the Whitney Museum in late 2017. As the background image, it is less busy than the original—fabric, wood, and rug are simpler—yet still rich in color and texture.

This self-referentiality connects this show to a larger series of drawings built around a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family. Legends Never Die is the fifth and final show, which began at the Museum of the African Diaspora with A Matter of Fact in 2016 and has continued through To Wander Determined, Whitney Museum (2017 - 2018); Testing the Name (2018), Savannah College of Art and Design; The Firmament (2018), Hood Museum of Art, (Dartmouth, NH), and concludes here with Legends Never Die. Ojih Odutola’s narrative conceit, announced on wall text and press release, is that the images are culled from the private collection of TH Lord Temitope Omodele and his husband TMH Lord Jideofor Emeka. The works are a mixture of family portraits, documents, and moments of private reverie rendered in charcoal and pastel. The series promises an intimate glimpse of wealthy Nigerian life, as Ojih Odutola phrases it, “their lordships sought to draw a more expanded portrait through the careful choice of works from their famed art collections—separate from the known public image of respectability oft presented by titled aristocracy—to express the inner workings of their family.” For Legends, Ojih Odutola adds a layer of generational depth and humor to the situation by specifying that the imaginary curatorial baton has been passed to the lordships’ nephew and heir apparent, TMH Lord Afamefuna Emeka Iwu, who we are told has chosen works “not seen by other members of both families, including their lordships.”

Toyin Ojih Odutola, Famed Rivalry, 2018. Pastel, charcoal and pencil on paper, 68 1/2 × 41 3/4 inches. Courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery.

In this iteration, the art is identified as both financial and cultural capital, since the conditions of its display come from the wealth and connections of TH Lord Temitope Omodele and his husband TMH Lord Jideofor Emeka. Art, itself, also figures prominently within the drawings themselves. In addition to the portraits of portraits, there are statues of prominent Nigerian family members, African masks, pottery, and ceremonial robes, all of which are portrayed on display within museums or homes. This meta-commentary on the nature of representation, then, is inseparable from the dynamics of wealth that underlie the art market and the politics of representation that confer value on what is represented. In this case, the series itself becomes an argument for the inclusion of Nigerian capital.

What this narrative framing underscores, however, is not just the importance of a wealthy black imaginary, but how much intimacy, specifically black, queer intimacy, lies at the center of these works. This intimacy unfolds at many levels. The very structure of the shows—a family willing to show their private art collection, including personal portraits—makes this explicit. Heir Apparent, the drawing described above features the curator/heir in the tub in relation to an image of his uncles. Here, he is literally basking in the legacy of black, queer love. This queerness is further foregrounded and formalized by the inclusion of two versions of invitations to the men’s wedding in 2014. In the narrative we are given via wall text and images, this same-sex union is mentioned in passing even as there is a paucity of cultural representations of African black queer men engaged in a loving relationship. This taken-for-grantedness of queerness filters down through the exhibit. I use queer here, both to connote the polymorphous sets of familial relations that we are given the opportunity to check in on—we see the late 18th Marquess of UmuEze Amara, sets of siblings, “The Firm,” children, and maternal perspectives—and the complex relationship between blackness, wealth, and what Kevin Quashie calls “the quiet.”

This is not an exhibit that insists on presenting wealth as loud and spectacular. Rather, wealth is what permits contemplation. We see this in the bathtub posture of Heir Apparent, but this solitary repose is evident in other images. We see people smoking on patios, engrossed in books, performing research, or looking at themselves in the mirror. There are backs of heads and downcast eyes. Contemplation oozes from these images, imbuing these portraits with an air of intimacy because viewers feel as though they are witnessing a private, quiet moment. The conjunction of blackness and the quiet is queer because it runs counter to the usual representations of black people. For Kevin Quashie, quiet enables us to imagine a wider range of possibilities for blackness and to begin to theorize black subjects. He writes, “Quiet . . . is a metaphor for the full range of one’s inner life—one’s desires, ambitions, hungers, vulnerabilities, fears. The inner life is not apolitical or without social value, but neither is it determined entirely by publicness. In fact, the interior—dynamic and ravishing—is a stay against the dominance of the social world; it has its own sovereignty.”2 Quashie’s insistence that interiority allows for a space separate from domination allows us to think about the form of political work that Ojih Odutola’s exhibit performs. On the one hand, the quiet here cannot be thought separately from the parameters of wealth, which, in turn, underscores the relationship between money and the right to privacy. We could, then, register the exhibit as arguing that wealth is required to restore the possibility of black interiority and imagination. If, however, we focus on the role of art in relation to both wealth and the quiet, we arrive somewhere else, specifically the feeling that there is something radical in seeing black people exist in such casual proximity to art—art which we have been narratively given to understand is valuable. This itself is its own form of queerness.

Notes

  1. Kevin Quashie, The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012), 6.
  2. Kevin Quashie, The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012), 6.

Contributor

Amber Jamilla Musser

Amber Jamilla Musser is Associate Professor of American Studies at George Washington University and the author of Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism (NYU, 2014) and Sensual Excess: Queer Femininity and Brown Jouissance, which was published by NYU Press in November.

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