Toyin Odutola makes highly detailed ballpoint pen, ink and marker drawings that accentuate the complex nature and texture of skin. “I’m interested in the skin as a narrative for people to explore,” she says. “I honestly believe skin is a geography that we explore. Each skin is different, even if it’s in the same race.”
Her intricate renderings focus predominantly on Black skin and are a meditation on the human form. Odutola draws from inspiration of portrait painters Frida Kahlo and John Singer Sargent. She captures subjects in unassuming positions and works from reference photos, narrowing in carefully on details of the flesh. “It’s a plain white surface and the black is a positive mark that I inject,” she says.
For “(Maps),” her first solo exhibition at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, she created a series of self-portraits. In an untitled work, an opaque hand rests on the crown of her head, suggesting a watchful presence that looms. “The hand represents history,” she says. More recently, she has expanded from black ballpoint ink to a larger color palette. “On a materialistic level I wanted to explore the color combinations and palettes, how color activates the pen and ink. On a more conceptual level I’m trying to be sincere about the Black image. People are multi-faceted and skin can be a vehicle to access a person.”
Odutola was born in Nigeria, and moved to the U.S when she was a child. “I grew up in a family of hardworking Nigerian immigrants. I didn’t think art was a job, I thought it was a hobby. I moved geographically and economically. We were middle class and then we became lower working class.” Growing up in the South, she was constantly doodling—drawing was a way for her to capture the emotions of constant change. “I was like, ‘Let me have this moment here.’ I decided to use that moment through the vehicle of portraiture. It evolved into this style of skinless geography.”
Her work will be featured in “After the Barbarians” along with Geoffrey Chadsey at Jack Shainman in October. She is completing an MFA at the California College of the Arts and will be exhibiting her work at Art Basel Miami Beach in December.