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Insight Into the Works of Two Pioneering Female Artists

Toyin Ojih Odutola and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye construct new figures and new worlds to paint black back on the canvas.


It is a man. It is a woman. It is neither. It pulls tight up to its neck the lines, dots and fractals of traditional West African mud cloth – the sacred geometries reflected like stars, like water – like ancient cosmologies on its face. Hair cropped close to the scalp, a blonde like Beninoir gold. A black. A white. A gold in between. Hold it in your mouth a little longer.

In a file of audio recordings archived from a London-based arts hub active in the ’70s, exiled South African writer Lewis Nkosi interviews the Sudanese painter Ibrahim El-Salahi and the East African artist and thinker Elimo Njau at FESMAN, the first ever pan-African festival of the arts held in Dakar, Senegal, in 1966. They discuss the relatively new and divisive concept of Negritude, a term imagined and theorised by the pan-African surrealists Aimé Cesairé, Léopold Sédar Senghor (the first president of Senegal) and Léon Damas. It is tense: El-Salahi is trying Negritude on. A new skin, perhaps ill-fitting. ‘The first time I heard the word Negritude, it gave me a strange feeling. And I had to chew it for some time to see what taste it had. And I must admit that when I came here, I came with a little bit of prejudice. And I realised that what I’ve seen here, it hasn’t nothing to do … it has no implication with the racial thing in itself, as much it has to do with a cultural thing.’ The painter takes the term, turns over with his tongue, rolls it hard against his palate. He holds it in his mouth a little longer.

Toyin Ojih Odutola is a Nigerian-born artist who works across multiple mediums. In ‘Hold It In Your Mouth A Little Longer’ and ‘LTS III’, markings score cloth, score skin. She dashes, hyphens, commas, dots. She hieroglyphs the traditional scarification of a tribe we might know, but whose name we have not learnt to pronounce.

Born in Nigeria, raised in Alabama, schooled in San Francisco and now based in New York, the multiplicities of the artist’s geopolitics are contemplated, complicated and reflected in her work.

‘The skin in the drawings I create was initially an investigation into what skin felt like, to live in that space and the way that affects how the skin is defined, how it is read, how it creates parameters for movement and possibility,’ says Odutola in an interview for Juxtapoz magazine.

Digital artist, curator and all-round digital badass Jepchumba rants to me about interfaces. The user interface. How it controls how one navigates a page, reads either from right to left, or up and down. Swipe right for yes. Decide in two seconds who you are, and if you’re in love. A well-designed website tells you at first glance who and what it is. It wears its skin naked. 

The style I employ was my way of questioning that surface and seeing the ways I could expand on it. Since then, the investigation has evolved to tackle how the skin can be placed within a composition, how it works within a larger system on a picture plane and, by extension, how the skin is placed in a public forum.’ – Toyin Ojih Odutola

Brown skins are often viewed as inferior in most parts of the world. This filtered into how skins are captured and represented. Photography has an inherent bias against dark skin: modern photography was originally calibrated using a white woman. Writer and photographer Syreeta McFadden explains: ‘They are called Shirley cards, named after the first woman to pose for them. In the photograph, Shirley is wearing a white dress with long black gloves. A pearl bracelet adorns one of her wrists. She has auburn hair that drapes her exposed shoulders. Her eyes are blue. The background is greyish, and she is surrounded by three pillows, each in one of the primary colours we’re taught in school. She wears a white dress because it reads in high contrast against the grey background with her black gloves. ‘Colour girl’ is the technicians’ term for her. The image is used as a metric for skin colour balance, which technicians use to render an image as close as possible to what the human eye recognises as normal. But there’s the rub: with a white body as a light meter, all other skin tones become deviations from the norm.’ 

We have had to teach the camera to see our skins. Teach oils to dance just the right shade of brown. Skin, and the qualitative depiction of it, is important. ‘I generally work from a formalist lens, playing with the way surfaces influence our perceptions of things, of people, of places; but I am also interested in the conceptual inclinations associated with skin, with the figure, with a subject’s surroundings – the spaces characters may or may not inhabit outside of their person. I look at the figure, as well as the scene where a figure exists, as landscapes that our eyes and minds travel through. I like the term “traverse”, because it encapsulates what I am doing in the mark-making of an image, as well as how a viewer interprets a work. The application mirrors how an image can be understood. And since everyone has their own distinctive frame of reference, the reads involved with my drawings range from scarification, to hair and muscle, to the internal, intangible workings of a person, to the political implications of race and class, and so forth. I don’t discount any of that.’ – Toyin Ojih Odutola

When I think of the figure, I think of immortality or an otherness that is just out of this world, representing an endless possibility. For me, the act of painting reflects blending in or standing out, being ignored or prominent. It’s a psychological space, a rumination.’ – Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

Ghanaian Yiadom-Boakye’s portraits are choreography. Curved lines made of many tangents, the strokes are blurred. Smudged over as if by obscuring, she aims to accentuate and emphasise. Straight-scored here forming an angle, the lines swell full of themselves, distended; and where they should burst, they stop, slide sanguine back down. A back curved in pose, in dance or in misery. 

‘Instead of trying to put complicated narratives into my work,’ Yiadom-Boakye explains, ‘I decided to simplify, and focus on just the figure and how it was painted. That in itself would carry the narrative.’

How do you tell someone, in oil and canvas, what brown looks like stretched over skin, bent at the elbow in simultaneous lament and celebration? Who are these black people – carefree and burdened?  Bent at the wrist, at the arm, at the waist. Legs crossed in lotus on chairs, legs spread wide over chairs, one leg crossed gingerly, luxuriously on something plump and plush? You dance in blur, and brown, and hue. You move the body across the canvas like musical notation.

Yiadom-Boakye says she doesn’t use black pigment in her paintings. ‘It completely deadens things. I use a mixture of brown and blue instead.’