Warrior Women Walked the Ancient World in Artist Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Imaginary Past | At the Smithsonian
Many art exhibits are immersive, but a walk through At Toyin Ojih Odutola “A Compensatory Theory” at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC, it’s like stepping into another world. The exhibition’s 40 striking charcoal and pastel chalkboard drawings tell the story of a previously unknown ancient advanced tribe that thrives in Nigeria’s Plateau State.
Here, all established notions of civilizations, colonization and gender roles are upended. A strong race of women called Eshu reign over the kobahumanoid men made to work in mines or grow food.
The two groups operate separately on the lush set until Aldo, a laborer, speaks out about the injustice to Akanke, a leader, who stops to listen. Eventually, they grow closer, swap languages and more, leading to a date that threatens to upend the entire social order. The tragedy is followed by glimpses of a new future for strange and magical people. “Unbeknownst to All”, Odutola writing from the story’s conclusion, “Akanke is pregnant with the product of the couples ‘swapping’ and years later she will give birth to twins who merge their races – the convergence of their respective ideas as well as their forms .”
As the story resolves, the viewer walks through the inner ring of the museum’s second-floor exhibit space and back to the start of the 360-degree experience. Throughout, the enveloping narrative is enhanced by spot lighting in an otherwise dark space.
As in the film, the viewer is drawn into the narrative by following the curve of the wall and the promise of a similar twist is just around the next bend. The entire immersive experience is accompanied by an equally haunting soundscape by a Ghanaian-British conceptual sound artist Pierre Adjaye. The ethereal sounds of West African drums, wooden reeds and synthesizer beds echo the wonder and tension of the story.
If films captivate viewers by rolling out a successive number of captivating images, intensified by lighting and sound, so does Odutola’s ‘A Countervailing Theory’, with the circularity of the gallery mimicking the reel of movie. The drawings, in their varying sized frames and irregular placements, create yet another kind of rhythm; one reminiscent of the creative visual storytelling that often explodes in graphic novels.
Odutola, a Nigerian-born artist who grew up in Alabama and works in New York, presents her imaginative work as if it were the kind of archaeological find on display at a nearby Smithsonian natural history museum.
A statement hangs in the gallery, identifying the artist as “Director, Jos Plateau Research Initiative at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria” and describing her initial discovery of “pictorial marks indicative of a civilization predating the earliest indigenous civilization. of the region”. On the black shale rock, said to have been discovered by a Chinese mining company, she discerned “an otherworldly parable, with visual representations of humanoid figures in landscape dramas, aesthetically aquatic and stylistically organic.” The effect is to make the viewer uncertain about what is real and what is fantasy.
When “A Compensatory Theory” opened in 2020 at London’s Barbican, Odutola noted she was inspired by news of some finds in Nigeria and heard of a German archaeologist’s reaction to the discovery of the famous bronze head from Ife in Nigeria in 1938, a piece so exquisite that he said that it must have been made while visiting ancient Greeks.
“I started asking, who has the right to create their own stories?” Odutola noted. “I wanted to create a work of art that stood out visually from Western image-making, that felt very ‘other’…I wanted to flip the script in every aspect.”
She wanted to create a history of Nigeria, she Recount The New York Times last year, “which felt safe, exploratory and queer.”
To do this, she drew on the writings of Octavia E. Butler but also, she turned to the graphic novels of Hayao Miyazaki and Alejandro Jodorowsky, science fiction films like Arrival and Gattaca, and the music of Solange, Labrinth and Bjork.
Betsy Johnsonthe Hirshhorn curator who helped organize the show, says they’ve never had anything like “A Compensatory Theory”.
“There’s something about the very tight narrative of this that’s quite different from other shows, because of Toyin’s process of writing first, doing the research, and building the works from that narrative. It gives it a cohesion, but also a rhythm that is quite different from other exhibitions,” she says.
The enclosed nature of Hirshhorn’s circular exhibition space, compared to the open curve of the Barbican (and the traditional layouts of the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, where the exhibition was also briefly on display last spring) makes it more intense. And this allowed the musician Adjaye to increase the number of loudspeakers, located above and on the ground, for his soundscape.
“My work, I call it music for architecture,” says Adjaye, who often works with his brother the architect David Adjayethe principal designer of the nearby Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“The difference between being a musician and a sound artist, I think, is the idea of how sound also lives in space, how that sound can be transported through space,” says Adjaye. “One of my favorite things is working in difficult spaces.”
From the start, he says he and Odutola were in sync in their discussions of the story. “If so-called factual history, written by historians, who use inference to write things that become permanent literature, can imagine a truth, so can I,” says Adjaye. “So who’s to say the story isn’t a myth? Who says myth isn’t history? Who said history was fact? It’s prospects. The word story makes it seem so frozen.
In the Hirshhorn, its musical pieces move and change with every turn, as does the narrative.
Johnson says the inner circular space has been carpeted for the first time in decades to help absorb sound and separate it from the strikingly similar concurrent survey, “Laurie Anderson: The Weather” which adjoins it. The two side-by-side shows, Johnson says, “were a complete happy accident that both performers are thrilled about.”
Peeks between spaces show a similar interest in not only shaking up conventions but also drawing white figures on black surfaces. “Also, both Toyin and Laurie are very strong female symbols of art in a very male world.” Adjaye says, “and oddly enough, both are sound-oriented as well.”
While the space for “A Countervailing Theory” is largely black, with spot lighting that often makes the subject’s eyes gleam, there are also variations in lighting, as sunlight streams in and out of the patterned fabric covering the windows of the courtyard.
“When the sun comes up,” says Johnson, “there’s a woven pattern in the fabrics of the shades that ripples across the floor and works quite well – almost like an extension of a landscape from pictures, which goes and comes during the day.”
“Toyin Ojih Odutola: a compensatory theory” continues through April 3, 2022 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC