The Curve is plunged into a deep penumbra, the sort that frees your imagination to roam. Stopping to read the introductory text to Nigerian-American artist Toyin Ojih Odutola's A Countervailing Theory, you find yourself inexplicably possessed by a growing sense of urgency, a need to move on. You are being summoned by an insistent, richly layered soundscape, a unique combination of classical strings, West African instruments, electronics and natural elements especially created by the Ghanaian-British conceptual sound artist Peter Adjaye.
Thus invited, you enter; and with a sense of wonder find all yourself immersed in a mythical time and space embodied in 40 drawings all in tones of black, white and grey, each suggesting part of a story, as well as asking questions of the viewer.
For her first UK exhibition, Toyin Ojih Odutola imagined an ancient myth, a fictional pre-historic civilisation dominated by female rulers and served by males labourers. Each community is forbidden from engaging in sexual or emotional relationships with the others. This much we're told in the exhibition notes. The works themselves, luminously drawn in pastel, charcoal and chalk with remarkable draughtsmanship, offer stunning representations of people and rocky landscapes (inspired by the Plateau State in central Nigeria), each frozen action simultaneously a statement and mystery.
'Vocabulary' for example, shows hands vertically touching, hands that are obviously female, with elegant, elongated fingers, bringing to mind Rodin's 'The Cathedral'. Already you are creating your own narrative...
The richly textured faces, their planes of silky skin meticulously drawn, bear a strange impassivity; but there is often intent and intensity in the eyes. In 'The Ruling Class' a woman towers over her surroundings, one boot-encased foot firmly planted on the foreground, the other lifted onto a rocky ledge. Weapon in hand, she looks into the distance, mistress of all that surrounds her. She is all implacable power, or so you determine.
Her representation as an unsexed female warrior is in stark contrast with the poignancy of the deeply sexual kiss portrayed in 'A Parting Gift; Hers and Hers, Only' where two young women, lovers for sure, meet one last time as they are forced apart to go and colonise new lands (or so you think).
'This Is How You Were Born' depicts a foetus inside a see-through kind of gourd, reinforcing the narrative that intersex relationships were banned in this culture.
And yet, towards the end that narrative is entirely subverted. In the final panels the harsh rules are broken. A man and a woman come together in 'A Considered Choice'; 'Consequences Unforeseen' depicts twin foetuses inside a uterus; and in 'Children of the Century; Twin Sister and Brother' they appear as adolescents, their soft, yet determined expressions denoting their humanity.
The title of this exhibition, A Countervailing Theory, references the idea of countering an existing power with equal force, and maybe this sudden subversion of the prevailing narrative marks mankind's transition from a mythical pre-history to our messy, but all too human, present. But maybe that's just a viewer's contribution to the artist's narrative, and it's perhaps too reductive a view, as the artist's intention is also to challenge ideas of colonial history.
Moved by the perfect sensorial marriage between image and sound, your imagination will, of course, lead you to find your own narrative.
A Countervailing Theory acquaints us with a remarkable artist. Toyin Ojih Odutola's talent is matched by an inquisitive intelligence, creating work that, by leading us into new worlds and stimulating our imagination, proves profoundly enriching.
|What||Review: Toyin Ojih Odutola, A Countervailing Theory, Barbican Curve|
|Where||Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London, EC2Y 8DS | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Barbican (underground)|
11 Aug 20 – 24 Jan 21, Opens at 12:00; Sat and Sun at 11:00