Art

I’ve Got Loyalty, Got Royalty Inside My DNA: Toyin Ojih Odutola’s “When Legends Die”

Toyin Ojih Odutola, The Firm, 2017-18, pastel, charcoal and graphite on paper (Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery)

In the premiere episode of Pose, which focuses on the house and ball scene in 1980s New York, the House of Abundance rushes into a barely disguised Brooklyn Museum to swipe opulent historical clothing to compete as Royalty. Before they hide under podiums to evade security, each character has a private moment with various Egyptian artifacts. Dominique Jackson’s fierce and intimidating Elektra Abundance stares down a noble bust with her regal features mimicking its own, while Angel, played by Indya Moore, reaches out to commit the ultimate museum-going transgression–touching the missing nose of another sculpture. Angel draws her hand back to her chest, making visible the connection she felt with the art.

What if, rather than marginalized queer and trans people of color visiting these hallowed objects, they owned these objects? What if these artifacts were never taken from Africa, placed in white and traditionally European spaces, but kept within their proper cultural context and people? What if, rather than embodying royalty for a momentary period within the safe space of the balls (and House of Abundance does embody it) and their chosen queer family, constructed in the face of homophobia and transphobia, their aristocratic queerness belonged in the lineage of their biological family too?

It’s these questions that Toyin Ojih Odutola asks in her recent series of drawings, on view in a current show When Legends Die that is spread across Jack Shainman Gallery’s two exhibition spaces in Chelsea. When Legends Die concludes a five-part exhibition series that began in 2016 with A Matter of Fact at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco and eventually hit the Whitney Museum, Savannah College of Art and Design, and the Hood Museum of Art. Through the entirety of the series, Ojih Odutola weaves a fictional tale of an aristocratic Nigerian family that centers around a married gay couple,TH Lord Temitope Omodele, third son to the barony of Obafemi, house of ambassadors, and TMH Lord Jideofor Emeka, 19th Marquess of the UmuEze Amara, RSO, OG, EG. While the duo appear in several drawings, most notably the vivid Newlyweds On Holiday, seen at the Whitney, as well as in the corner of one of her more recent drawings Heir Apparent, the series is more expansive than just this duo and their love. It’s about an entire extended family, linked together by a same-sex relationship.

Toyin Ojih Odutola, In the Drawing Room, 2018, pastel, charcoal and pencil on paper (Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery)

Speaking of other family members, When Legends Die, specifically, is supposedly organized by his lordship’s nephew TMH Lord Afamefuna Emeka Iwu, who culled together this combination of the family’s storied art collection and personal remembrances for an exhibition. In particular, the show focuses on TMH Lord Ikemefuna Emeka who died in his gap year in 1994. More than the intricate details of Ojih Odutola’s narrative, however, her drawings trace a familial heritage established through material history, from a representation of TH Lord Tempitope Omodele and TMH Lord Jideofor Emeka’s wedding invitation to depictions of sculptural masks nestled in crates to portraits of family members in repose in front of their art collections.

At first, Ojih Odutola’s fictional series seemed like a break from her previous series of drawings, not only in the use of fiction, but her formal stylistic choices. Her older work, in shows like 2011’s (Maps) and 2013’s My Country Has No Name, both at Jack Shainman, applied luminous swatches of silver, gold and silver to the body to capture the “cosmic effluvia” described by Frantz Fanon. In When Legends Die, Ojih Odutola certainly doesn’t abandon her interest in representing the multiplicity of Blackness, but she also expands her focus to apply that same interest in light to the folds, creases and flowing lines in luxurious and opulent fabrics. In the monumental The Firm, for example, the artist uses pastel, charcoal and graphite to create brightly colored, lusciously tactile clothing and vibrant reflections off gold jewelry that draw the eye into the painting without the (white) viewer objectifying or eroticizing Blackness.

Toyin Ojih Odutola, What Her Daughter Sees, 2018, pastel, charcoal and pencil on paper (Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery)

Another way she avoids the presumptions that are unfortunately placed on Black artists is by delving into fiction. By fictionalizing the narrative, Ojih Odutola removes herself, even slightly, from the tired and unimaginative fixation on the artist’s identity in relation to the work, which typically happens with artists of color. With When Legends Die, Ojih Odutola appears in the press release as the Deputy Private Secretary of the Amara Palace. She describes this decision to The Paris Review: “My otherness often precedes the content of the work, almost like a cloud before the viewer. Once I became the Deputy Private Secretary on the press release, the viewer stopped looking into my involvement and tried to grasp the story. I was freed from the distraction of the story somehow being about me.”

But, this isn’t all that fiction achieves. By setting the exhibition in fiction, Ojih Odutola follows a legacy of Afrofuturism by imagining another world and possibilities for Black people beyond colonialism. Of course, Black nobility is often a theme explored in Afrofuturist aesthetics. The most obvious reference here would be the Wakandan royal family, but this linkage between Afrofuturism and royalty can also be seen in Beyoncé’s crown-adorned Oshun-inspired 2017 Grammy’s performance or more minimally, Janelle Monáe and Erykah Badu’s besuited queenliness in “Q.U.E.E.N.”

Toyin Ojih Odutola, Heir Apparent, 2018. Pastel, charcoal and pencil on paper (Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery)

However, rather than setting her narrative in a future, Ojih Odutola locates these fictions within the not-too-distant past and present. For example, art becomes a major theme in When Legends Die. While some drawings focus on masks or vessels, others depict scenes of various characters reading or writing in the presence of their art objects. In Ojih Odutola’s hands, these art pieces become, not a marker of European colonialism or conquest, but African cultural inheritance. She imagines a world in which these objects are kept in Nigerian families rather than at the British Museum, which recently comically stated to The Guardian, “A lot of our collections are not from a colonial context; not everything here was acquired by Europeans by looting.” Sure, okay…

In her engagement with fictional narratives as a means to evoke other possibilities for African aesthetic heritage, Ojih Odutola’s When Legends Die relates to José Esteban Muñoz’s notion of queer utopia, which can often be found in the aesthetic. As Muñoz explains in Cruising Utopia, “Often we can glimpse the worlds proposed and promised by queerness in the realm of the aesthetic. The aesthetic, especially the queer aesthetic frequently contains blueprints and schemata of a forward-dawning futurity” (1). Rather than a completely fantastical world, Ojih Odutola’s lush drawings reveal “an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility of another world” (1).

Toyin Ojih Odutola, The Signal, 2018, pastel, charcoal and pencil on paper (photo by author)

One way they engage with potentiality is by focusing on queer kinship in Nigeria, a country, which passed the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act in early 2014. The act legislates that same-sex couples that get married can be sentenced up to 14 years in prison. Not only are the couples themselves in threat of prison time, but so are witnesses to same-sex marriages. The Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act also outlaws the “public show of same-sex amorous relationships directly or indirectly.” With this homophobic reality, Ojih Odutola’s depiction of same-sex marriages, including a wedding invitation, becomes a radical gesture, visualizing a potential for queer love to exist not only openly in Nigeria, but as a part of families rather than legislated that it be hidden in the closet.

TH Lord Tempitope Omodele and TMH Lord Jideofor Emeka are not the only queer couple in this fictional family. The dual portrait The Signal portrays a lesbian couple, the Marquess’s sister and her wife at their wedding reception, which Ojih Odutola’s revealed recently on Instagram. In, respectively, a striped button-down shirt and leopard print tunic with envy-worthy boots, they casually yet tenderly place their hands on each other. By representing queer couples, along with older matriarchal figures, sons, daughters and other family members, Ojih Odutola places a legacy of queer kinship firmly within this aristocratic family. Often queerness is seen as ahistorical, an aberration set apart from the biological family rather than within it. Genealogy and lineage, when spoken in a queer context, often refers to alternative forms of kinship, chosen families built in the absence of support from biological ones. In a similar manner, people within the African diaspora also experience a break in their familial history due to the transatlantic slave trade. As Ojih Odutola told W Magazine, “So much of the representation of historically oppressed people has been this loss of history that is the transatlantic slave trade. I want to depict a family that never experienced that.”

Toyin Ojih Odutola, Unaddressed Memories, 2018, pastel, charcoal and pencil on paper (Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery)

Even the show’s central conceit, being curated by an heir, supports this sense of intergeneration legacy. As she writes, as the Deputy Secretary, in the press release, “their generations will become the custodians of how their birthright and endowment will be defined and manifested.” Here, the entire family tree expands through the connection of a same-sex marriage, a lineage of royalty, art and kinship that draws from a queer source, which gives viewers a sense of possibility outside of white supremacy, colonialism and both socially and legally imposed heteronormativity. As madison moore writes in Fabulous: The Rise of the Beautiful Eccentric, “Utopias may not overhaul systems of oppression, but at the very least, they give us something to look forward to, and they allow us to work toward other possibilities in the here and now” (31).

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