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Toyin Ojih Odutola on connecting with others through portraiture


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: Artist Toyin Ojih Odutola is best known for her detailed portraits, mainly done in black pen ink.

And she's the subject of this week's Brief But Spectacular.

The Nigerian-born artist recounts her family's relocation to the American South and how tradition and identity has seeped into her work.

Tonight's piece is also part of our ongoing Canvas series.

Toyin Ojih Odutola: I always like to put people in positions that look very awkward, and look like they're about to do something or they just did something, so there's nothing to pin them down. You don't quite know where they're going to go.

That's my way of fighting that expectation that people have about blackness, about black people and black stories.

As a black person, I'm trying to play with that and play with our own expectations within our community about what we can do and how we can look and what stories we should tell.

I was born in Ife, Nigeria, came to the U.S. at a young age, and found my way to the South, which, depending on who you ask, can be a tragedy or the best thing that ever happened to me. It was definitely a culture shock.

And I was a new thing in my school, and I was different and foreign. And even amongst kids that looked very similar to me, there was a difference or an otherness that they didn't want to interact with.

I remember my mom was pretty worried, so she got me a coloring book of my favorite character from "The Lion King" called Timon. And so I remember her, like, showing it to me just before we left, and was like, "Do what you can."

I discovered drawing, and so that became this other world that I could get lost into.

When I got into portraiture, it was simply because I wanted to see not just myself, but people like me. And then, as I got older, it became more about just stories.

When you're an artist of color in particular, people tend to be very biographical. Like, they like to have the biography come in front of the content, instead of actually seeing what you did.

Having characters kind of frees me from that obfuscation, and people can actually engage with the picture and the story that I'm trying to tell.

When people say black experience, they are often looking outside in. I can't change this. So, how do I get people to understand what it feels like to be in something you can't control, and yet, systematically, you're being treated a certain way because of that?

So the only way I could see myself fighting that was to make it a topography, to make it a landscape. And, through that, people can actually traverse it and understand.

For me, drawing made my world less small. And so, in my act of drawing and creating drawings, I hope to make the world less small for other people.

My name is Toyin Ojih Odutola, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on having a vivid imagination.

Amna Nawaz: And you can find additional Brief But Spectacular episodes on our Web site. That's

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