Monday, 11 January 2010

interview with Toyin Odutola

q) Please tell us a brief info about yourself.

a)I am a Nigerian-American artist who deals with mainly portraiture engaging in issues involving skin as identity and body as a site for representation on a social, sexual and political level. I am a recent graduate with a BA in Studio Art and Communications and I am fascinated by aesthetics in both the Fine Arts field and in Design. I love to explore art theory and contemporary methodologies of artists who explore meaning through modern, innovative concepts with traditional mediums of application. I am somewhat obsessed with the internet and all the connectivity it facilitates, however, I find that certain tangible objects and histories, such as a handwriting a letter, can be rewarding as well and I hope such luxuries never die.

q) Tell us about your humble beginnings? When did you first realized that you wanted to be an artist?

a)My humble beginnings? Umm... I was born in Nigeria and lived there until I was about five to move to the United States with my family. In Nigeria there was a great deal of social, economic and political unrest and my family felt it best to move to the US for a better life and more stable opportunities for us children. Since then I've only visited my homeland once. Although, I've grown up rather isolated from it, Nigeria and my Nigerian heritage have an immense influence on my work and often feed my thoughts as I am working on a piece. As for the realization of my being artist, I believe it all started rolling along when I was about nine, while my family was transitioning from the West to the South here in the US. The move had a profound effect on me and I became incredible depressed because of it. To console myself I took up doodling. Images of Timon and Pumba from Disney’s THE LION KING were a fixture, and I loved mimicking their likeness whenever I could find a scrap of paper (or surface for that matter to draw on). I never considered myself officially an artist as a young child nor did I ever entertain the possibility – I just didn’t think it was a reality for me. It wasn’t until I arrived at high school and discovered that art-making was something that defined me was when I truly identified myself as an artist and actively wanted to take steps toward making the profession a reality for me. It really was a turning point and I am grateful to my amazing art teacher, Mrs. Bathurst, for encouraging and inspiring me to follow that dream.

q) What are your tools of the trade and why?

a)I work mainly with pen and ink – it is the unifying rudimentary tool of my trade. Regardless of the supplementary tools used (such as India ink, acrylic paint, varnish, gesso paint, or wood stain) to facilitate the creation of each piece I make, pen ink is a constant. I am attracted to pen ink for its starkness and its ability to create a texture with the style of drawing I do that seems more immediate and visceral, but at the same time streamlined and sophisticated. Permanence is something that also attracts me to pen ink for it allows me to be more careful with the marks I make and the placement/composition I choose to explore in each piece. Overall, pen ink has been the best and most basic tool (in terms of availability to me and accessibility to the audience) which allows me to achieve a well put together image, while not having to use overly glamorous materials to get my point across. It’s the innovation behind the tool that makes it all work as well. In every piece I do, I aim to use the ink to the fullest extent I can--exploiting every inch to arrive at the best product.

q) Who or what gives you inspiration on your morbid art?

a)Wow..(chuckles), I never considered my work morbid. That is very interesting that you should mention
that. It makes me rethink how it is presented. I guess who influences and inspires my work may have something to do with that. I am deeply transported by the works of Kara Walker, Charles W. White, Barkley Hendricks, Adrian Piper, Zhang Xiaogang, Wangechi Mutu, Kehinde Wiley, Yinka Shonibare, Michael Zavros, Egon Schiele, Julie Mehretu, Bridget Riley, Lisa Milroy, Mark Bradford, Glenn Ligon, Kimsooja, Cy Twombly, Laylah Ali, Lucian Freud, Ghada Amer, Shawn Barber, and Francis Bacon. I sometimes read how many artists are inspired by the world around them--by nature, by life experiences, by their past, by love, &etc -- and to a certain extent I can relate to that and honestly say that there is some personal truth of it in my work, some influence there. However, I find a stronger inspirational presence when I see other artists works and have found the motivation to create my own works from their creations. I'm not entirely sure why, possibly it has something to do with seeing another beautiful creation by another human being and wanting to create one of my own to contribute to the overall cannon of beautiful works of humanity.

q) Is your artistic background self-taught or did you go to college to study?

a)It started off as something that was self-taught. I began through imitation; pouring over images of cartoon characters – from Disney to anime – aiming to get the perfect rendition to match the original which it inspired. But as I got more focused on art in school and more invested, I shifted my focus more to studying specific techniques and research. Figure drawing had a huge effect on my work, for obvious reasons, and so did printmaking, however, I think a lot of what I do comes from trial and error on my own personal time, working and reworking pieces on my own in my room or at a studio. I think for an artist, a lot of the learning is 50/50. You get the materials you need and you attend classes to understand how to use those materials, then you are left on your own to experiment with what you've learned to arrive at something that is yours. The personal aim is to investigate and through that you find a style that is your methodological core – a conceptual basis for working/creating.

q) How do you keep “fresh” within your industry?

a)Although I live in a rather small community very much outside of the Art World at large (as microcosmic as it may be in comparison to say... the music industry or film and theatre), I find that the internet is an amazing tool which allows for an artist to keep up to date with what's going on in the industry. Also, being in a "Digital Age" makes everything so novel and fast-paced, that can make people very competitive and can be daunting, but I like to think of it as inspiration to work more traditionally and find more innovative ways of using traditional tools and methods to explore and comment on current issues and situations happening in the contemporary world. As aforementioned, graphic design has had an immense influence on how I compose and present my pieces, which is heavily induced by the internet as well. Being inundated by graphic design and a multitude of data almost everywhere we go today has forced me to simplify my concepts more and find more minimal means of creating engaging portraits. In the end, I hope for my pieces to be straight-forward initially and force the viewer to pause and investigate what makes up the portrait, so that there is a level of ...slowness and calm, while still having something striking and impressionable on the viewer's mind.

q) What are some of your current projects?

a)Currently, I am working on a body vignettes series which explores a ever-expanding concept of "Otherness and Inclusivity" exemplified by singular portraits of body parts of significance -- hands, feet, genitals. In this series, I'm trying to explore the idea of identity as skin, and the components of the skin that comprise an individual’s identity. Though my portraits are, as of yet, mainly of Black figures, the aim to investigate the little moments in the skin of Blackness and Whiteness as a definition that formulates Black skin and identity. I would like to extend this concept to encompass multiple skin tones in the monochromatic -- white, gray, and black -- as metaphors for multifaceted representations of skin and self-definition. In sum, my work aims to show that the skin we wear is the skin that is made up of a multitude of tones, of stages, or impressions, of colours, and shapes --all different and yet all existing within a singular individual. It's a lot to take on and it seems very complex, but I hope for the pieces to come off very simplistically and starkly, so that the message can still come across without having too much going on to distract the viewer from that message.

q) Which of your works are you the most proud of? And why?

a)My recent works have really caused a great personal and artistic shift for me. I love working with a monochromatic palette, for it rids me the distraction of colour and all that multiple colours tend to connote. With the monochromatic, I can strip an image to its bare essentials and have the marks I make carry more weight. I find the images are more striking. Along that chord, I would have to note that that almost all of the body vignettes series are my favourite so far for they have honed my way of "seeing" skin and composing figures and silhouettes. The body is now a site for so many explorations now that it is monochrome in rendition. I spend more time on making sure each mark I make is purposefully done and meticulously executed. This gives more of a attentive look at what I am trying to say with the piece, for I can be very specific yet still have somewhat vague implications can a reader can pick up on without having to worry about adding a red tint here or a blue tint there. Once you let go of that, everything becomes so much more meaningful and urgent, nothing feels arbitrary -- because it isn't. In a way, the marks have more to say. Furthermore, I like how there seems to be more movement with these new pieces, even on a flat two-dimensional ground, there are currents of motion in the stillness that makes these pieces pop for me.

q) Are there any areas, techniques, mediums, projects in your field that you have yet to try?

a)I would absolutely love to explore wood relief and sculpture. I also am interested in working with weaving, braiding, and tapestry ornamentation as well as other textile techniques. Additionally, I want to hone in on my printmaking skills and transition from drawing to etching and intaglio prints -- I think my style would be very conducive to that medium. And finally, I wouldn't mind exploring video art and animation as well, I think that would be rather interesting to expand on this concept of "Otherness and Inclusiveness" with that.

q) What do you do to keep yourself motivated and avoid being burnt-out?

a)Look up other artists and research their work -- past and present. I think that's what you need to do as a visual artist -- to be a recipient of other people’s work, to understand how other pieces leave an indelible mark on your psyche, so that you can pinpoint those particular elements and study how they affect you personally so you can utilize those elements in your art. Just like writers read other great authors' works, and actors' watch films and theatre productions by other great performers to understand different ways of portrayal, so can artists use other artists and images to inspire themselves to push their works in different directions. And who better to understand where you’re coming from as an artist than another visual artist? To avoid being burnt-out? I go and lie back for a little while and listen to music, doesn't matter which genre, sometimes it just helps to relax to a soundtrack, and one never knows what images might conjure up in one's mind listening to the musical vibes being expressed by another artist through another medium.

q) How do you spend most of your free time?

a)On the internet, (chuckles), doesn't everybody? There is so much available via the Web, so much to access, it's hard not to be connected. I do rather enjoy reading, though. Writings from Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Anna Gavalda, Langston Hughes, Suheir Hammad, and bell hooks leave a great impression on me. And I must say, I am an avid movie watching fan. I love the experience of films --not to say I'm a movie buff by any means, but I can admit to having seen my fair share of classics. I will say this: am a bit partial to films about or in some way involving visual artists, such as GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1997), LA BELLE NOISEUSE (1991), FRIDA (2002), ANGELS & INSECTS (1995), HIGH ART (1998), POLLOCK (2000), ...the list goes on and on.

q) What contemporary artists or developments in art interest you?

a)Please refer to questions 4 and 6, thanks. :-)

q) We really like some of your pictures, how can we get our hands on them? Do you sell them? How?

a)Thank you so much, it really means a lot to me. Actually I am currently working on doing that. But as of yet, I am still in the nascent stages of selling them myself. For contact information on representation, I am currently represented by Cabinodd Collectiosn (CC) in The Netherlands by Ella Buzo (