Toyin Ojih Odutola, Summons; To Witness One's Own, 2020
© Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist + Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
It’s a pointed requisite—the art has to look back. It has to be more than what I think it is, whatever I’ll think it is. I remind myself to think this way every time: because there is a world beyond everyone’s ‘me,’ and certain artworks become portals to this realm, this future, this alternative. You have to be ready to leave it all behind and experience something new, something other than seeing your ‘you.’ There has to be something there, waiting already. My attention cannot be the deciding factor, the life-giver, the reason this moment came. No. It must be a mutual meeting, with levelled gazes and intense introspection. Like a conversation long overdue, and maybe even a little tense, if I’m lucky.
The exchange is not in giving the art your permission, or approval, or praise. The exchange is in deciphering the work and exactly when you become aware that you are being deciphered as well. When you realise that you too are being seen. Then, you use your one hand to tally the similarities and the other the differences, thinking that that's all it amounts to, still.
What does it say about us that any developmental approaches to our knowns, our structures have to derive, out of necessity, from resemblance? How are we ever to know what else we could become if we remain loyal to this outline? Limiting a thing by our idea of it. By our idea of ourselves. Limiting ourselves. Defining the distinctions more than we are challenging them, and calling these new words we’ve doted our reiterations with, tools of change.
Summons; To Witness One’s Own by Toyin Ojih Odutola is staring back at me. Patiently. Warily. Anxiously. Sadly. Familiar expressions binding me there, with them, for however long it takes. The portal opens. There is such an immense, immediate alertness assigned to me by the detail, the monochrome, and the impact of the subjects gathered there to look back. Part of the collection, ‘A Countervailing Theory,' Ojih Odutola has managed to do more than mesmerise. There is foremost a definitive presence made tangible that does about a million things to your thinking before you realise you haven’t yet blinked. Using charcoal and pastel on a linen board pulled over an aluminium panel, she summons a slippery something and asks you if you can pin-point it.
It is both there and undefinable in its magic, which makes it larger: imposing and impressive. You’re forgiven for thinking it is the eyes of the Koba, or the skilful distinction between the texture of their skin, their bodies, and their surroundings. The arresting quality permeates the entire work and draws you into the fiction that preempted its creation. But the portal is still open. Both you and the artwork are still looking. Are still being seen. Are still figuring out a way to escape the outline.