Women Warriors Ran the Ancient World in Artist Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Imagined Past
The Hirshhorn’s show, “A Countervailing Theory,” posits a society where gender roles are reversed
Toyin Ojih Odutola (above) “flips the script in every aspect,” she says of her 40 charcoal and pastel drawings depicting a story about a strong race of women, called the Eshu, who rule over humanoid men made to work in the mines or to cultivate food. Courtesy of the artist, photography by Matailong Du
Plenty of art exhibitions are immersive, but a walk through Toyin Ojih Odutola’s “A Countervailing Theory” at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C., is like entering another world. The show’s 40 striking charcoal and pastel drawings on black board tell the story of an ancient, previously unknown, advanced tribe that thrives in Plateau State, Nigeria.
Here, any established notions of civilizations, colonization and gender roles are upended. A strong race of women called the Eshu rule over the Koba, the humanoid men manufactured to work in the mines or cultivate food.
The two groups operate separately on the lush plateau until Aldo, a worker, speaks out about injustice to Akanke, a female leader, who pauses to listen. Eventually they get closer, exchange languages and more, leading to a tryst that threatens to upend the entire social order. Tragedy is followed by glimpses of a new future for the strange and magical people. “Unbeknownst to everyone,” Odutola writes of the story’s conclusion, “Akanke is pregnant with the product of the couples ‘exchange’ and years later will deliver twins who are the merging of their races—the convergence of their respective ideas as well as their forms.”
As the story resolves, the viewer traverses the inner ring of the museum’s second floor exhibition space and arrives back to the start of the 360-degree experience. Throughout, the enveloping narrative is enhanced by pinpoint lighting in an otherwise darkened space.
As in film, the viewer is pulled into the narrative following the curve of the wall and the promise of a similar twist is just around the next bend. The whole immersive experience is accompanied by a similarly haunting soundscape by Ghanaian-British conceptual sound artist Peter Adjaye. Ethereal sounds of West African percussion, wooden reeds and synthesizer beds echo the wonder and tension of the story.
If motion pictures captivate viewers by unspooling a successive number of compelling images, intensified by lighting and sound, so does Odutola’s “A Countervailing Theory,” with the circularity of the gallery mimicking the reel of film. The drawings, in their various-sized frames and irregular placements create yet another kind of rhythm; one that recalls the creative visual storytelling that often explodes in graphic novels.
Odutola, a Nigerian-born artist, who was raised in Alabama and works in New York City, presents her imaginative work as if it were the kind of archeological discovery displayed at a neighboring 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 finding of the “pictorial markings indicative of a civilization preceding the oldest civilization indigenous to the region.” On the black shale rock, said to have been discovered by a Chinese mining concern, she discerned “an otherworldly parable, with visual representations of humanoid figures in landscape dramas, aesthetically aquatic and stylistically organic.” The effect is to render the viewer unsure of what is real and what is fantasy.
When “A Countervailing Theory”opened in 2020 at the Barbican in London, Odutola said she was inspired by news of some discoveries in Nigeria and hearing about a German archaeologist’s reaction to finding the famed Bronze Head from Ife in Nigeria in 1938, a piece so exquisite he declared it must have been made by visiting ancient Greeks.
“I started asking, who has a right to create their own stories?” Odutola said. “I wanted to create a work of art that visually stood apart from occidental picture-making, that felt very ‘other’…I wanted to flip the script in every aspect.”
She wanted to create a history of Nigeria, she told The New York Times last year, “that felt safe, exploratory and queer.”
To do so, she drew on the writings of Octavia E. Butler but also, she looked to graphic novels by Hayao Miyazaki and Alejandro Jodorowsky, sci-fi films like Arrival and Gattaca, and the music of Solange, Labrinth and Bjork.
Betsy Johnson, the Hirshhorn curator who helped arrange the show, says they’ve never had anything quite like “A Countervailing Theory.”
“There’s something about the very tight narrative of this that is quite different than other shows, because of Toyin’s process of writing first, doing the research, and building the works off of that narrative. That gives it a cohesiveness, but also a rhythm that’s quite different from other exhibitions,” she says.
The closed nature of the circular Hirshhorn exhibition space, compared with the open curve at the Barbican (and the traditional planes of the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, where the show also was briefly exhibited last spring) make it more intense. And it allowed musician Adjaye to increase the number of speakers, located overhead and along the floor, for his soundscape.
“My work, I call it music for architecture,” says Adjaye, who often works with his brother the architect David Adjaye, the lead designer of the Smithsonian’s nearby 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 the space, how that sound is able to be transported in space,” Adjaye says. “One of my favorite things is working in spaces that are difficult.”
From the beginning, he says he and Odutola were in sync in their discussions of history. “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,” Adjaye says. “So who’s to say that history is not myth? Who’s to say that myth isn’t history? Who says history is fact? It’s perspectives. The word history makes it seem so fixed.”
In the Hirshhorn, his musical pieces shift and change at each turn, just as the narrative does.
Johnson says the interior circular space was newly carpeted for the first time in decades to help absorb the sound—and separate it from the surprisingly similar, simultaneous survey, “Laurie Anderson: The Weather,” that adjoins it. The two shows side by side, Johnson says, “were a complete happy accident that both artists are thrilled about.”
Peeks between the spaces show a similar interest not only in shaking up conventions but in drawing white figures on black surfaces. “Also, Toyin and Laurie are both very strong female symbols of art in a very male-oriented world.” Adjaye says, “and funnily enough, both of them are sound-oriented as well.”
While the space for“A Countervailing Theory” is largely black, with pinpoint lighting that often makes the subject’s eyes shine, there are lighting variations, too, as sunlight enters and leaves the patterned fabric covering the courtyard windows.
“When the sun comes through,” Johnson says, “there is a patterning woven into the fabrics of the blinds that ripples across the floor and works quite well—almost like an extension of a landscape from images, that ebbs and flows during the day.”
“Toyin Ojih Odutola: A Countervailing Theory” continues through April 3, 2022 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.