Why you should care
Because these fictional portraits will never be displayed as a collection again.
When I walked into San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora, I was ready for the usual repository of African masks, wooden carvings and woven baskets one finds in a typical African art museum. Instead, I found the complete opposite: African art as it would be imagined in 2017, including virtual reality landscapes featuring urban expressways, an exhibit documenting architecture across the entire continent, interactive music stations and moving installations. But the most striking exhibit, in my opinion, was a series of 18 larger-than-life pastel and charcoal drawings of imagined Nigerian royalty by the popular artist Toyin Ojih Odutola.
The exhibit, titled A Matter of Fact: The UmuEze Amara Collection, is a “private collection of rarely exhibited portraits” of the fictional UmuEze Amara family. They’re presented as reality. It’s up to the viewer to decipher that the works are newly created and displayed in a context that makes the projects more intriguing. Even the accompanying pamphlet goes into great detail about the family-portrait collection. “A lot of visitors expect the museum to be full of fact,” says the museum’s curator and director of exhibitions, Emily Kuhlmann. People tend to project ideas about museum content, even on art museums, she says. “Some people recognize it as fictional and others don’t. In talking to Toyin, she is not interested in correcting that misunderstanding either.”
The ambiguity, and the idea that perhaps there exists this aristocratic family you had never heard of before, is the whole point. Those unfamiliar with Nigeria may miss the perhaps ironic colonial flair. Even those with a master’s in African Studies (pointing to myself here) might do a double take. “These were the Kennedys and the Windsors, combined by way of Nigeria,” writes Ojih Odutola about her exhibit. In the drawings, the UmuEze Amara family (UmuEze means royalty and Amara means grace in Igbo, a Nigerian language) lives an opulent life and is depicted lounging on chaises, wearing fur coats and riding horseback.
You are aware that what you are seeing is an invention…however, if you did not know it was all a fiction would any of that matter?
Toyin Ojih Odutola
The drawings themselves are captivating. They are nearly floor-to-ceiling and lavish in color and style but make you feel as if you can’t look away. Right after I left the museum, I tried to look up prices, in some sort of hope that maybe one day I could hang a piece in my home. Apparently I am not alone; all the works have sold and will not be displayed as a collection again. The style of the works is a departure from Ojih Odutola’s past work, which focused mostly on “the figurative and the texture of the skin,” using charcoal and pen, says Kuhlmann. In A Matter of Fact, which Ojih Odutola created in just one summer, often working until the early hours of the morning, she focuses on the background as well.
Ojih Odutola is known for playing with perception in her previous works as well. In reference to those earlier pieces, she told The Village Voice, “Of course they’re Black figures because they’re drawn in black pen, but not all of the figures are of African-American descent, or at least the reference isn’t.” The Nigeria-born, Alabama-raised artist drew on her experience moving to the conservative South at the age of 9, when she says her Blackness was redefined by others.
The following Q&A with Toyin Ojih Odutola has been condensed and edited.
What will happen to the drawings next?
Ojih Odutola: A Matter of Fact is part of a larger arch that extends the narrative beyond the UmuEze Amara Clan and their family as a whole. There are various characters involved and other families. Essentially, AMoF is the first chapter of three, but is self contained in this exhibition and was created specifically to be shown at MoAD and nowhere else, so it will not be traveling as a unit. I am currently working on the next series.
What was the inspiration for the collection?
A Matter of Fact investigates the specificities of wealth constructs. It portrays the invented history of a fictionalized Nigerian family and their great house, where their entire existence is defined by the opulence and privilege of the unquestioned spaces they occupy. Like the racial imaginary of blackness, wealth defines the surroundings and those who inhabit them… This story illustrates what wealth does to the viewer’s read when one sees it displayed so nonchalantly… The constructs are layered all over the composition of each drawing. You are aware that what you are seeing is an invention, carefully staged to convince you of its feigned legitimacy; however, if you did not know it was all a fiction would any of that matter?
What compelled you to focus on background and Nigeria?
I wanted to create a story visitors could lose themselves in and believe to be possible, because it is. The story also gave me freedom to explore characters who had nothing to do with me or anyone I know or have known, as they are amalgamations and fictions, contrived solely to illustrate the construct of wealth. The research and methodology involved in formulating this series was intensive and consuming, but it was thrilling to create something which was completely new, inventive and unhindered by expectations. In the end, it allowed for the work to unfold in a much more layered and playful way.
The reasoning for creating Nigerian characters to inhabit AMoF was simply to take Nigeria out of the narrative of Otherness. Their “Nigerian-ness” is just as much a fact in this entire narrative enterprise, along with wealth, status, culture, etc. They are simply what they are; to exoticize them would miss the entire point of the exhibition, and to view their being Nigerian as a highlight in the overall scheme would miss the construct that is at play throughout the exhibition. In short, they are Nigerian simply because I wanted them to be and thought nothing wrong or strange about it, because as a Nigerian my existence is a fact, so why not make these characters so?
You moved countries as a child. How does that influence the series?
Since my youth, I have been entranced by the presumption and disposition of those who choose to don such identities regarding wealth — they seem so permanent, so staid and true. You knew someone was wealthy because the privilege of wealth was evident in everything they did, not simply everything they owned. This included abstract elements, such as mannerisms and the concept of taste, but the most evident of these qualities was the surroundings of the wealthy and how those surroundings were treated. The spaces people of wealth inhabit seem to exist beyond fact: they were established at some point by someone or a group of people and the wealth is never considered.
The exhibit runs through April 2 and admission is $10.