Toyin Ojih Odutola — Rethinking Empowerment as Political Narrative

Toyin Ojih Odutola’s new installation A Counterveiling Theory, which opened in the Barbican’s Curve gallery on 11th August, is an experimental and deeply original work that entwines speculative futurisms with ancient history and archaology. Her story is told through a series of intricate, and often monumental, drawings, done in pastel, chalk, and charcoal, that weave a narrative in which traditional gender and racial social roles are subverted. Ojih Odutola opens up possibilities about the visualisation and distillation of power, as figures in a fictional landscape interact with each other from the womb to adulthood. The subversion, in which female figures rule the land and male bodies are reduced to enacting physical labour, is not presented as utopian, but rather speaks to an alternate world in which violence and colonialism still exist, just in different hands.

Ojih Odutola’s fictions propose a co-dependency of culture and topography, between constructed identities and physical space, and thus there is a synonymy between portraiture and landscape in her work. The visual narrative is structured by the connections between flesh and slate, and the absence of colour and simplicity of shape in the drawings allows for greater tangibility of body and stone. She traces subtle connective lines between the images, suggesting a temporal linearity that is more fluid than stable, seeking embodiment out of curved forms. The ambient soundscape (by Peter Adjaye) compliments the work, the nebulousness of the narrative reasserted, and the sound’s spaciousness alluding to a vivid sense of place. The Curve is a good space for sustaining a story in this way; its literal arc encourages the tale to unfurl like a novel. And like a science fiction novel, A Counterveiling Theory is equally structured by what is unsaid as what is spoken. Between the images is a reservoir of what is unrepresented in Ojih Odutola’s story, and the significance lies in this liminality; a space where narrative falters, in which the audience must imagine the wider world in which these images connect.

Ultimately, the installation contests empowerment as a political narrative. The work feels parallel with contemporary debates that seem to think reconciling with sexist histories means inserting women into CEO positions, or that half-heartedly combat racism by renaming ‘master’ bedrooms in real estate, as if private property isn’t a system that is intrinsic to racial oppression. This kind of faux liberation that really just reasserts capitalism is reflected in the critical reception of Ojih Odutola’s work. ‘Artist Toyin Ojih Odutola imagines a world ruled by powerful women’ is the headline published by Dazed magazine, conflating Ojih Odutola’s tale of power and subservience with contemporary discourse on femininity and capitalistic power. Instead, I would argue that A Counterveiling Theory creates what Annalee Newitz describes in the science fiction podcast Our Opinions are Correct as a ‘crunchy future’, a phrase reflecting the textural complexity of assimilating utopia with dystopia rather than presenting one or the other in its isolated entirety. Both utopia and dystopia, Newitz argues with co-host (the brilliant) Charlie Jane Anders, provide a landscape verging on implausibility, and perhaps such a binary is unhelpful to visualise a world in which oppression and resistance are butting heads but simultaneously existing.

Ojih Odutola’s work entwines vivid narratives of power and colonialism with the scientific specificity of geology, resulting in a speculative fiction that proposes a negation of utopia and dystopia as a dualism. There is something deeply profitable in work that provides a dense yet effortless experiment in speculative fiction, both reflecting debates that are prevalent today and harking back to ancient histories. In some particularly poignant portraits of women overlooking their land, Ojih Odutola calls into question the significance of sight, and the politics of being able to observe and interact. And overall, the exhibition provokes us to consider the difficulty of imagining a liberation that does not mean the exploitation of others.

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