Toyin Ojih Odutola - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Thursday, April 15, 2021 | Phillips
  • Overview


    Love is lak de sea.
    It's uh movin' thing, but still and all,
    it takes its shape from de shore it meets,
    and it's different with every shore.
    —Zora Neale Hurston, 1937

    In LTS IV, a young male figure is portrayed lounging against an abstract, green-patterned background, his arm outstretched behind his neck and his eyes dozing in peaceful rest. The man is one of Odutola’s younger brothers, captured as part of the Nigerian-born artist’s Like The Sea series which, initially displayed at the Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, in 2014, took its name from an aphorism opening Zora Neale Hurston's 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. With its precise, blade-like lines and its deep, dreamlike colours, LTS IV typifies the immersive style for which Odutola has become known for. Recognised by many as one of the most promising artists of her generation, Odutola was the first Black woman to be bestowed a show at The Curve at the Barbican Centre in London in 2020 — an event that closely followed another moment of prestige in her career, as the artist saw her first solo exhibition take place at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in 2017. Focusing her portraiture on family members and those that surround her, Odutola expands ‘not only the definition of blackness, but [also] what blackness can contain, what blackness can reveal, and where it can go’.1 An exquisite example of this practice, LTS IV conveys an ethereally poetic portrait that is as much grounded in reality as it extends beyond the arbitrary boundaries of life.


    Installation of Toyin Ojih Odutola: A Countervailing Theory at The Curve, Barbican Centre, London, 10 August 2020. Photograph: Tim P. Whitby. Getty Images for Barbican Art Gallery.
    Installation of Toyin Ojih Odutola: A Countervailing Theory at The Curve, Barbican Centre, London, 10 August 2020. Photograph: Tim P. Whitby. Getty Images for Barbican Art Gallery.

    Family-Driven Narratives


    Evincing the lifelike silhouette of Odutola’s brother with palpable intimacy, LTS IV beautifully demonstrates the importance of the artist’s family as a subject matter in her oeuvre. Capturing the timelapse before or after an action — here, following a lengthy photoshoot that the artist admitted left both of her brothers exhausted, resulting in several portraits of them sleeping — LTS IV shows Odutola’s brother lounging serenely against what appears to be a traditional Nigerian tapestry, his gaze cast outward, and the presence of his sister, the painter, palpable in emotional involvement. With its intimate edge, and its invitation into the character’s personal space as he unwinds from tireless activity, the image explores the vivid, sublime permutations of leisure in portraiture, as well as ‘the malleability of identity, meaning and power through portraiture and story-telling’ — Odutola’s self-described artistic mission.2

    'It was important for me to have them just be, to look like they weren’t changing themselves for anyone—not even me.' —Toyin Ojih Odutola

    Through her distinctively stylised portraits, Odutola addresses themes of identity, uncertainty and belonging, crafting a story that takes its conceptual footing from reality, before being propelled in an embellished realm of figuration. Relocating from Ife, Nigeria to the United States when she was five years old — first to California and subsequently to Alabama — the artist has, over the course of her artistic practice, transcribed a sense of displacement in her work that has continually echoed her real-life experiences. ‘My family and I have constantly been affected by the places we have lived and in so doing have adjusted ourselves to every context’, Odutola said. ‘It's something I have carried with me into adulthood—this application of compromising oneself to fit my surroundings—and my brothers as well’.3 As her peripatetic upbringing seeped through her painterly style — which itself seems jagged, as though perpetually in movement — Odutola very quickly adopted drawing as a medium of choice, facilitating her desire to convey layers, tensions, and quasi-cartographic specificity in skin. ‘The act of drawing for me is a cultivating act’, the artist has said. ‘Each drawing I create is my way of crafting a home for myself’.4



    Drawing Portraits

    '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.’ —Toyin Ojih OdutolaIndeed, Odutola’s approach to portraiture is not only exceptional in the sense of proximity it conveys, but also in the artist’s medium of choice — the two being, in a discreet way, interconnected. Odutola’s decision to employ charcoal, pastel and marker pen to render her vibrant depictions challenges the tradition of the painted portrait, and her masterful draughtsmanship is brilliantly exemplified by the present work. Here, the varying environments which the artist experienced growing up seem to be translated through the broken marks that she engraves in her drawing, imprinting intricately detailed forms onto the surface of her subject matter as if they were the meandering lines of a thumbprint. The treatment of the flesh in particular is striking, showing quick movements of black and white that together conjure a kind of magical luminescence. This technique of abstracted figuration enabled by drawing fosters a new approach to the treatment of Black skin in particular, allowing for a discreet figurative materialisation of Odutola’s torn identity. The way in which the artist draws the patterns of surrounding fabric — a reference to the family’s collective origin and their own interwoven narrative with place and space — furthermore flattens the composition, echoing windblown foliage and imbuing the work with the rhythmic quality of a landscape.

    Connecting Through Portraiture




    1 Toyin Ojih Odutola, quoted in Katie Geha, ‘A Starting Point’, The Georgia Review, Summer 2019, online.
    2 Toyin Ojih Odutola, Artist Statement, online.
    3 Toyin Ojih Odutola, quoted on Jack Shainman Gallery, online.
    4 Toyin Ojih Odutola, quoted in For Opacity: Elijah Burgher, exh. cat., The Drawing Center, New York, 2018, p. 18.

    • Provenance

      Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
      Private Collection, Miami
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      New York, Jack Shainman Gallery, Toyin Ojih Odutola: Like the Sea, 1 - 31 May 2014



charcoal, pastel and marker on paper
106.9 x 167.7 cm (42 1/8 x 66 in.)
Executed in 2014.

Full Cataloguing

£100,000 - 150,000 

Sold for £378,000

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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 15 April 2021