A Conversation with Toyin Ojih Odutola and Zadie Smith


On Monday, December 3, 2018, Toyin Ojih Odutola and Zadie Smith convened at The Drawing Center for a conversation about Ojih Odutola’s practice and her work in the exhibition For Opacity: Elijah Burgher, Toyin Ojih Odutola, and Nathaniel Mary Quinn. On the heels of Smith’s essay on Ojih Odutola in British Vogue, this dialogue explores the “Afroternative” present that permeates Ojih Odutola’s drawings, and how that alternative collides with our reality. Together, these speakers provide insight into how Ojih Odutola approaches her materials and subjects.


Toyin Ojih Odutola (b. 1985, Nigeria) distinguishes herself by the range of materials she uses, including graphite, white and black charcoal, ballpoint pen, pastel, color pencil, and marker, each of which she employs both in the service of articulating her subjects—that is, quite specifically, their variegated skin tones and clothing textures—and as a means of ensuring obfuscation. In Ojih Odutola’s hands, the line remains an intentional mark both delineating skin and surface and exposing it as an unstable socially-coded terrain.


In recent years, solo exhibitions of Ojih Odutola’s work have been mounted by the Savannah College of Art and Design Museum of Art, GA; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco; the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis; and the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art.


Zadie Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, was the winner of The Whitbread First Novel Award, The Guardian First Book Award, The James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction, and The Commonwealth Writers’ First Book Award. Her second, The Autograph Man, won The Jewish Quarterly Wingate Literary Prize. Zadie Smith’s third novel, On Beauty, won the Orange Prize for Fiction, A Commonwealth Writers’ Best Book Award and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Her fourth novel, NW, was shortlisted for the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize and the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Her most recent novel, Swing Time, was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and longlisted for the Man Booker 2017. Her first essay collection, Changing My Mind, was published in 2009 and her second, Feel Free, in 2018.


Zadie Smith is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and has twice been listed as one of Granta’s 20 Best Young British Novelists. She writes regularly for the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books and is a tenured professor of creative writing at New York University.