Alumna Toyin Odutola: A Rising Star with Her Feet on the Ground

"My Country Has No Name"

The work of 28-year-old Nigerian-born artist Toyin Odutola (MFA 2012) may literally be black portraiture with ballpoint pen ink, but speaking figuratively, her work speaks volumes. Addressing issues of identity, race, and nationhood, her art resonates strongly with her audiences.

Since graduating from CCA, Odutola has had two solo shows at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, and was featured as one of Forbes magazine’s “30 Under 30” art and design stars.

The talented and down-to-earth artist credits much of her success to friend and mentor, alumnus Hank Willis Thomas (MFA 2004), her dedicated professors, and fellow students.

Journey to CCA

Odutola moved to the United States when she was little, settling with her family in Alabama. After she earned her bachelor of arts from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, she followed in the footsteps of her idol, Willis Thomas, and made her way to CCA.

“I admired, and still admire, his work immensely,” says Odutola. “I was intrigued by the interdisciplinary range of his studio work and wanted to be involved in a graduate program that could inspire and facilitate that.”

“In my time at CCA, my work took on so much more weight. I was able to think more conceptually and critically analyze, to the minutest detail, what messages I wanted to express with the work I was making. Hank’s work really solidified my inclination to trust in the work I was making and what that would lead me to.”

From Idol to Mentor

While at CCA, Willis Thomas delivered a lecture to the Graduate Program in Fine Arts students. “If I had not been given the opportunity to study [within CCA's program] I never would have met him,” says Odutola, “and meeting him took me totally by surprise.”

Following the lecture, Odutola approached Willis Thomas to review her work, but he declined. He did, however, pay a surprise visit to her studio the next day. Since then, Willis Thomas has become a huge supporter of Odutola and her work, even including her as one of his "Top Ten" in ArtForum in April 2012.

“My aim has always been to keep pushing my work and stay true to my convictions,” explains Odutola, “and Hank has been an amazing mentor for me with this.

“CCA also connected me to an incredible group of peer artists and teachers who continue to inspire me to this day. Having them in my life has also been immensely helpful and fulfilling. … Everyone I had the pleasure of spending time and exchanging ideas with left an indelible mark on me.”

Culture Shock: From Alabama to San Francisco

Even though Odutola lived in Berkeley during her early years, she admits it was still a bit of a culture shock returning to the Bay Area for graduate school.

According to Odutola’s recollection: “It was a colorful experience coming to San Francisco and I was open to all it had to offer. Sometimes you just need to take the risk and not be afraid of where it all might lead.”

Heritage & Identity

For many artists, heritage and identity are always (at least) subconsciously present in their work, but for Odutola, it’s a guiding force.

The artist’s most recent work, exhibited in My Country Has No Name at Jack Shainman Gallery (May 16 to June 29, 2013), directly addresses issues of heritage and identity.

“Inquiries began on the subject of what I considered myself,” explains Odutola. She posted about the experience on her Tumblr blog: “An African American artist? A Nigerian artist? An African Woman artist? These questions followed with how I saw the subjects I portrayed: Why I portrayed them specifically? What that meant? And so forth.

“In all honesty, I was a bit taken aback by these questions because I had never considered myself in the context of that conversation.”

“In sum, to speak somewhat metaphorically,” the artist continues, “I see Nigeria and the heritage I have from the country as a written language that has been laid before me, and I am now taking that same language and writing another story.

“The source material is always there, but the characters, the settings, even the sounds will be changed, because the dynamics of that ‘identity’ have changed.

“There’s no need or inclination to validate an existence or be afraid of the ambivalence. It took me a long time to accept this progression, but in doing so, I feel that my work can travel further because of it.”

Process: “It’s the Evolution of the Thing”

Odutola started her blog early on as a way to connect to the art world. Since then, her blog and social media pages have become a living catalog to the process of her work.

“I love documenting process because I can see where I have been,” she admits. “It’s a bit like making tracks in the snow. I love it because I can catalog everything and always go back and see where I started and what led me to the finish.

"It’s somewhat overcautious -- attempting to meticulously document every step, every mark, every stage, but I really learn the most from it.

“During my graduate studies this process only became more cemented and intricate to my studio practice. It seems the more I can track what I have done, the better I learn from my mistakes as well. I can figure out what works best and what doesn’t.”

A Rising Star Keeping Her Feet on the Ground

In regard to being featured as one of Forbes magazine’s “30 Under 30,” Odutola addresses her fast ascension in the art world: “I’m incredibly grateful. I seriously cannot believe my luck. . . . Honestly, whatever success I have is attributed to everyone who has helped me, and that’s no wise cracking either -- I truly mean that!”

Well, it's not just luck! Odutola is a shining example of what can happen if you are dedicated, stay true to yourself, and always keep your feet to the ground.

Artist’s Acknowledgments

I am incredibly indebted to the following faculty for inspiring and challenging me, helping me to think in broader, more innovative ways: Allison Smith, Maria Porges, Tina Takemoto, Cheryl Dunye, Taravat Talepasand, Nance O’Banion, Ranu Mukherjee, Kim Anno, and Elizabeth Mangini.

I got to learn so much from the San Francisco Media Center staff (Rebekah Eisenberg, Nick Bruno, and Lauren Malecheck), and the San Francisco Library staff members, who were all awesome. And I gotta make a shout-out to Chrissie Bradley and David Morini in the Graduate Studies Office for giving me life many, many times.

The most inspiring and creative persons: Christine Pan, Bruna Massadas, Bean Gilsdorf, Sita Bhaumik, Maria “Guadalupe,” Ann Schnake, Senalka McDonald, Manyee “Twiggy” Lam, Nick Johnson Lee, Matthew Leal, Ben Vilmain, Heather Watson, Kate Nichols, Allie Takahashi, Jordan “Adair” Stephens, Christine Elfman, Nicole Markoff, Christine M. Peterson, Maya Pasternak, Gigi Otalvaro-Hormillosa, Katelyn Eichwald, Serena Cole, Max Esplin, Lexie Bouwsma, Victoria DeBlassie, “Clavo Rivas,” Zafir Aksit, Aidah Aliyah Rasheed, Carmen Lang, Kenny Kong, Daniel Dallabrida, Johanna Friedman, Rebekah Goldstein, James Coquia, William Emmert, Kate Bonner, Marissa Botelho, Alex Hernandez, Kate Nartker, Andrea Bacigalupo, Kim Engelen, Henry Witecki, Joshua Reinstein, Wes Fanelli, Benjamin Ilka, Lindsey Lyons, and Larissa Greer.