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Imaginative Storytelling: Reviewing ‘A Countervailing Theory’ by Toyin Ojih Odutola

Rating: * * * * *

In her first-ever UK exhibition, Nigerian-American artist, Toyin Ojih Odutola, does not disappoint. ‘A Countervailing Theory’ plays with Africa’s historical emphasis on storytelling and myth to craft a gallery experience that is one of a kind.

Each painting is a part of a whole, forming an overarching narrative to follow as you walk along ‘The Curve’. Ojih Odutola travels through time to reimagine Nigeria’s past, building a mythical matriarchy where only the same genders can have relations. This queering of prehistoric Nigeria normalises sexual variations and acts as a powerful challenge to gender hierarchies.

‘A Parting Gift; Hers and Hers, Only’ (2019), from ‘A Countervailing Theory’ © Toyin Ojih Odutola.

The first thing to note is Ojih Odutola’s incredibly intricate use of detail. The soft curves of the human shapes effortlessly mirror the curves in the cavernous rocky terrain, as inspired by the geological formations in the Plateau State of Nigeria. This creates a wonderful parallel or alliance of natural forms. Further, even though Ojih Odutola’s pastel, chalk and charcoal style depicts colourless characters in silvers, greys and blacks, her expert shading constructs a futuristic shimmer that perfectly captures the beautiful moonlit glow of Black skin.

‘To Be Chosen and Not Known’ (2019 – 20), from ‘A Countervailing Theory’ © Toyin Ojih Odutola.

Riyom Rock, Riyom Town, Plateau State, Nigeria. Image Source.

With such a captivating portrayal of the narrative, Ojih Odutola has viewers doing a dance with her drawings. Every passerby will first step closer to feast on the myriad of textures, then step back to take in the narrative segment in its entirety, before leaning in once more for one last look. Overall, Ojih Odutola’s inventive mode of artistic storytelling has the exhibition room functioning as a kind of twirling ballroom rather than a motionless spectatorship as visitors carefully move around each other from a two-metre-safe distance, desperate for another glimpse.

This exhibition works well with the immersive soundscape, ‘Ceremonies Within’, by artist, Peter Adjaye. Adjaye’s transportive and atmospheric musical backdrop helps envelop visitors in the story before them, bringing it to life through a variety of sensations.

In summary, ‘A Countervailing Theory’ is an absolute must-see. Your magical journey through myth begins at the Barbican — visit their website for ticket availability.

Free admission through online booking. Running until January 24, 2021.

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