In their depictions of domination, the artist’s works, full of world-building and philosophy, do more than flip the script.
A woman stands in an otherworldly landscape, looking out. The landscape is sublime, though not the European sublime of cliffs, peaks, and mist. Here the sublime is African. It has many textures—conglomerations of stone, waterfalls, verdant grasslands—and may remind Nigerians of their own Jos Plateau. The woman stands with her left leg raised, surveying it all, with no sense of urgency; indeed, she appears to be in a state of philosophical contemplation. She seems assured both of her mastery over this land and of her natural right to it. This sovereignty is expressed primarily by her body—the fabrics she wears, the pose she strikes, all of which find their reflection in the land around her. The same dark lines tracing her impressive musculature render the rippling rocks; the ridges of her bald head match the ridges in the stone; the luxurious folds of the fabric are answered by the intricate layering of the earth beneath her feet. Toyin Ojih Odutola’s “The Ruling Class (Eshu)” appears, at first glance, to be a portrait of dominion. For to rule is to believe the land is made in your image, and, moreover, that everyone within it submits to you. Structurally, it recalls Caspar David Friedrich’s depiction of Enlightenment dominion, “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog”: the same raised left leg, the same contemplation of power in tranquillity, the echoes of hair, pose, and fabric in the textured landscape. But the red-headed man with the cane and his back to us has been replaced by a black woman with a staff, facing forward. The script has been flipped.
The show containing this image is called “A Countervailing Theory.” Countervail: to offset the effect of something by countering it with something of equal force. The word could not be more apposite. We are in a cultural moment of radical countervailing, perhaps as potent as that experienced in the sixties, when what was offered as counter to the power of the gun, for example, was a daisy placed in its barrel. A period of hierarchical reversal, or replacement, of this for that. And “The Ruling Class” might seem wholly part of this countervailing movement, oppositional and constructed of opposites: black replacing white, by way of a restricted black-and-white palette of charcoal, chalk, and pastel. A picture that offers a new image of power as counter to an old one.
But that’s not the whole story. And Ojih Odutola—who was born in 1985, in Ife, Nigeria—is an unusually story-driven visual artist. Her 2017 breakout show, at the Whitney Museum, “To Wander Determined,” with its depiction of two imagined Nigerian dynasties united in marriage, involved world-building equal to that of any novel, and in “A Countervailing Theory” the “story,” as the title implies, is not merely a flipped script but also a theory concerning countervailing itself. The forty pictures in the show are hung on a curving wall at the Barbican, in London, and unfold sequentially, like a Chinese scroll. Together, they lead us deep into the wilderness of our present ideas about power—who should have it, how it should be wielded—and then out again, a journey as much philosophical as visual. What are the possibilities and the limits of countervailing, as a political or an aesthetic project? Is it sufficient merely to counter? Or might a higher synthesis be conceivable?
The project started, according to Ojih Odutola, with a “wandering charcoal line,” which she followed, “rather blindly, letting my mark making guide me . . . to see what aesthetic characteristics and proclivities recur and how to incorporate these as motifs in the work.” (Though Ojih Odutola’s images are often mistaken for painting, she has so far worked exclusively in pen, pencil, charcoal, and pastel.) Following this line, she arrived at an unexpected destination, framed as a question. “What would it look like if women were the only imperialists in known histories across the globe?” Which led to another: If the powerful women she was drawing were the masters, over whom did they have mastery? The story developed:
My initial aim was to tell a tale of two beings, one born, another made/manufactured, who exist within a system that enterprises and stratifies war, imperialism and hierarchies—and how these two mitigate their respective lives within it to, ultimately, cross over and come together to bring the whole system down. But they fail.
The two beings are Akanke, who is a member of the Eshu—the ruling class of women—and Aldo, one of the Koba, male humanoids manufactured to work for the Eshu, mining and cultivating food. The Koba far outnumber the Eshu—just as slave populations usually dwarf their overseers—but, like slaves, their lives are not their own and they live in fear that their masters will “decommission” them at any time, for any reason. The first eight pictures give us an idea of what it is to be Aldo. Like all Koba, seams run through his body, etched into the skin, through a process implemented, as another image, “This Is How You Were Made; Final Stages,” suggests, by the Eshu. And, as is true for all beings, Aldo’s own existence seems to be a puzzlement to him, although perhaps, as an oppressed being, he puzzles over it more intensely than the ruling class, who, in their tranquillity, tend to think only of their own power. In “Introductions: Early Embodiment (Koba),” this existential anxiety is expressed through the depiction of hard-to-parse liminal spaces, for Koba seem to come into being in a zone somewhere between the bardo, the depths of a mine, and a penal colony—amid circles, lines, waves, and shadows, where it is difficult to say what is floor or ceiling, ground or sky. In this strange, transitional place, Koba avert their eyes; they seem fearful; each grips his own naked body, which appears to be his only possession.
The contrast with what we glimpse, in “Unsupervised Education,” of Eshu childhood is striking. Young girls, future rulers, roam their environment freely, evidently curious, touching and examining the land, even breaking off pieces of it, at ease within their surroundings and never doubting that ease. When Ojih Odutola was asked about some of her sources of inspiration for Eshu society, she offered a line of Camille Paglia’s—“Society is a system of inherited forms reducing our humiliating passivity to nature”—and also the geometric costumery of the Dutch designer Iris van Herpen. It is easy to see, in the imperious Eshu, the ways in which this feared vulnerability is systemically disguised and obscured, by staffs and helmets, by bodies trained to show no sign of weakness or potential decay, and by clothing that, like van Herpen’s, mimics the patterns of nature and aspires to nature’s authority of form.
And yet Ojih Odutola never loses sight of the mutual melancholy that pervades asymmetric relationships of power. In “Suspicions Left Behind,” an Eshu woman crouches on the ground, her staff set aside, her helmet in her hand. She has a troubled look on her face. What is she thinking? Has she begun to suspect (like many a colonialist before her) that the asymmetric relationship between the Eshu and the Koba is untenable? For what Hegel revealed about the master-slave dialectic—and Frantz Fanon took and usefully applied to the asymmetries within both slavery and the colonial relationship—applies equally to the Eshu and the Koba: the Koba recognize the Eshu only on pain of punishment or death, while the Eshu recognize the Koba only as far as doing so supports their own distorted self-recognition as “masters.” And, further, as it is in slavery, the more the Eshu rely on the Koba’s labor, the more dependent they in fact become on the Koba, and the more the Koba understand their own creativity and usefulness vis-à-vis the land, and demand to be truly recognized. In this mournful fable of mutual misrecognition, the secret relationship that we see develop between one Eshu, Akanke, and one Koba, Aldo, results in the creation of a third kind of being (conceived, in this world, through the act of cunnilingus—the Koba have no penises). In “Consequences Unforeseen,” twin fetuses emerge, half Eshu, half Koba, the product of a disruptive affection.
These future beings would seem to lend visual expression to Fanonian ideas of hybridity, and to offer a promising departure from a Manichaean world. But hybridity alone is insufficient. There is still the law—unjust, half blind, written by the tranquil conquerors—and in the concluding series of images we see the law crush Aldo (he is accused of killing an Eshu, a crime he did not commit). Akanke and her female partner, another Eshu, do not intervene, and Aldo, as a subject with no rights, who cannot be saved by love alone, perishes. An important lesson: recognition of the other is never solely an individual’s gift to give. Love is not law. The system in its entirety must recognize the other.
Instead, the system is oblivious; it is always facing the other way. In “To the Next Outpost,” Akanke gazes out toward a distant point of her people’s colonies while Aldo, facing the viewer, carries a heavy cable, his labor unacknowledged. In “Mating Ritual,” we see several Koba, naked as ever, bending their bodies into striking vogue-like shapes, all without actually touching one another; perhaps sexual activity between them is only psychic or virtual. No Eshu are present, but we can assume they know little of the mating rituals of their underlings. Why would they imagine a complex culture exists within a community they have refused to recognize as autonomous? In truth, power sees so little. Ojih Odutola herself had cause to note this paradox when she came across another vital reference point for “A Countervailing Theory,” an installment of the BBC’s 2010 radio series “A History of the World in 100 Objects.” The episode in question concerned an example of one of Nigeria’s greatest art treasures, the sculpted Ife heads, which, when it was first discovered, in 1910, by the anthropologist Leo Frobenius, was believed to have been created by Greek “Atlantians,” so improbable did it seem to Frobenius that such fine work could be the product of “savage” Africans on African soil. (Modern scholarship suggests that the heads were sculpted sometime around the fifteenth century, exactly where they were found.) For Ojih Odutola, this absurd analysis is not only a pathetic error of the past but a continuing problem:
How could such a vivid imagination be afforded to a very misguided German anthropologist—to the point of insult in concocting such a tale—yet the very creations of our ancestors and that of our own today are seen with such limited scope and complexity?
Listening to the episode, I was struck not only by the ugly racial theory but by the form of the countervail, which was offered, in the episode, by the Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri:
The presence of tranquillity in a work of art speaks of a great internal civilization. Because you can’t have the tranquillity without reflection, you can’t have the tranquillity without having asked the great questions about your place in the universe, and having answered those questions to some degree of satisfaction. And that, for me, is what civilization is.
It is, of course, natural that when we are “othered” by the deficient colonial imagination we should want to defend ourselves against the accusation of “savagery” by asserting our own claim to “civilization.” However, I couldn’t help but remind myself that what is called “civilization” always and everywhere has its discontents, that is, those people who are not satisfied by your answers. When Walter Benjamin claimed that every document of civilization is at the same time a document of barbarism, he made no exceptions, and, painful as it can be to acknowledge, the historical fact remains that the same community that made the exquisite Ife heads also proved capable of slave raids, of selling their fellow-Africans to European slavers, just as the same culture that produced Constable conceived the Royal African Company, which issued slave-trading licenses to the merchants and middlemen of a thriving global business. When we are tranquil, when we believe ourselves perfectly civilized, it is usually because the claims of others are invisible to us. And there are always claims.
Ojih Odutola’s radical visual reversals function like thought experiments that take us beyond the merely hierarchical. By positioning the unexpected figure of the black woman as master, as oppressor, she suspends, for a moment, our focus on the individual sins of people—the Mississippi overseer, the British slave merchant, the West African slave raider—and turns it back upon enabling systems. It was a racist global system of capital and exploitation—coupled with a perverse and asymmetric understanding of human resource and value—that allowed the trade in humans to occur, and although that trade no longer exists in its previous form, many of its habits of mind persist. In “A Countervailing Theory,” the habit of thought that recognizes some beings and ignores others is presented to us as an element of a physical landscape, the better to emphasize its all-encompassing nature. That system is the air Akanke and Aldo breathe, the bodies they’re in, the land they walk on. For Ojih Odutola, it is expressed by one unending, unfurling charcoal line:
The purpose of beginning the story from the perspective of Aldo, one who is subjugated, is intentional: to show how easily one can be indoctrinated into a systemic predicament. Between Aldo and Akanke, there isn’t a clear demarcation of good or bad with regard to their respective worlds and who they are. The system in which they coexist is illustrated through the striated systems in place—with literal motifs of lines throughout the pictures—representing how the system is ever present and felt, but not explicitly stated. The system is fact.
How can such systems be dismantled? Surely, as Audre Lorde knew, it is not by using the master’s tools. “A Countervailing Theory” offers some alternative possibilities. Here love is radical—between women, between men, between women and men, between human and nonhuman—because it forces us into a fuller recognition of the other. And cunnilingus is radical, and seeing is radical, and listening is radical, for the same reason. We know we don’t want to be victims of history. We know we refuse to be slaves. But do we want to be masters—to behave like masters? To expect as they expect? To be as tranquil and entitled as they are? To claim as righteous our decision not to include them in our human considerations? Are we content that all our attacks on them be ad hominem, as they once spoke of us? If our first response to these portraits of black, female masters is some variation on #bowdownbitches or #girlboss, well, no one can deny the profound pleasures of role reversal, of the flipped script, but when we speak thus we must acknowledge that we can make no simultaneous claim to having put down the master’s tools. Akanke is in these images—but so is Aldo. He must be recognized. The dream of Frantz Fanon was not the replacement of one unjust power with another unjust power; it was a revolutionary humanism, neither assimilationist nor supremacist, in which the Manichaean logic of dominant/submissive as it applies to people is finally and completely dismantled, and the right of every being to its dignity is recognized. That is decolonization.