Someone once asked Toyin Ojih Odutola, a contemporary portrait painter based in New York, what her purpose as an artist was.
This is how she answered: “To make the world less small.”
On the surface level, how she does that seems obvious. Toyin is Nigerian-born and grew up in Texas. The perspective her artwork brings to the white walls of traditionally white, male spaces is important as we grow the space for voices.
But diversity means more to Toyin than representation of skin color in art. Diversity also means diversity of thought in the room. I love this little reminder that “diversity” isn’t a call to lift up one voice over another; it should be an attempt to elevate all voices to an equal level so that we can hear, and ostensibly learn, from each one.
Making the world feel less small comes through in her art in very powerful ways. Not only does her portraiture capture and express the magic of black skin, the conceptual work of her images reveals much. For her recent exhibition at The Whitney, she presented life-size portraits from the “private estates” of two fictional Nigerian aristocratic families.
As i-D writes, these are “radically soft visions of black wealth” driven by Toyin’s diversification of the stories we tell ourselves.
“Toyin says this was the driving question for her Whitney exhibition: What if you claimed everywhere you go as a home? Some black people avoid traveling because they (reasonably) fear they’ll encounter racism. Toyin wanted to help ease this hesitation by depicting black people outside, in nature, swimming in lagoons, chilling on the beach, taking in the sunset.”
That sounds so simple… but when you consider all the ways popular media can misrepresent black experiences and bodies by the imagery they choose, Toyin’s portraits seem all that more powerful in their commonness of scene.