We are in a cultural moment of radical countervailing.

Zadie Smith, “Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Visions of Power,” The New Yorker

To celebrate the North American debut of Toyin Ojih Odutola: A Countervailing Theory, the Nigerian-American artist joined independent curator Erin J. Gilbert to discuss her use of drawing and storytelling to investigate familiar histories and pose alternative realities.


Installation view from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden presentation of Toyin Ojih Odutola: A Countervailing Theory, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 2021. Courtesy of the artist Photo by Matailong Du
Installation view from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden presentation of Toyin Ojih Odutola: A Countervailing Theory, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 2021. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Matailong Du.

Toyin Ojih Odutola is known for investigating the relationship between drawing and storytelling, using materials such as pastel, charcoal, and chalk to communicate elaborate fictional narratives of her own creation. With her series A Countervailing Theory, she explores how mark-making can open up pathways to new meanings. By fluidly shifting between the imaginary and the real, Ojih Odutola incorporates an unconventional approach to drawing material and surface, specifically working with white and gray materials on a black ground.

Ojih Odutola was born in 1985 in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, and currently lives and works in New York. She has exhibited at various institutions across the country, including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, Washington, DC. She was featured in Manifesta in 2018, won the Rees Visionary Award in 2018, and was shortlisted for the Pinchuk Foundation Future Generation Prize in 2019. Ojih Odutola earned her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Alabama in Huntsville and her Master of Fine Arts from California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

A Countervailing Theory is an epic cycle of 40 large-scale drawings that chronicles a prehistoric civilization ruled by female warriors known as the Eshu who are served by a class of male laborers known as the Koba. Titled after the political theory of countervailance—the notion that one power can oppose another by countering it with equal force—the exhibition is a meditation on the grave cost of power structures that are built on inequity. Although we are left to make our own meaning from the tale, its conclusion suggests that “flipping the script” is not enough: it needs to be dismantled and rewritten.

Toyin Ojih Odutola: A Countervailing Theory was commissioned by the Barbican, London. Supported by Arts Council England and Jack Shainman Gallery.

Dive deeper

  • Into the Art:
    • Enjoy the Tale of Akanke and Aldo written by Toyin Ojih Odutola.
    • Read Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Visions of Power by Zadie Smith (The New Yorker, Aug. 2020)
    • Listen to Peter Adjaye’s brief introduction to ‘Ceremonies Within,’ the soundscape composed for A Countervailing Theory.
    • Learn more about John Coltrane with this short essay by National Portrait Gallery historian David Ward. Toyin Ojih Odutola’s installation was partially inspired by Jazz and John Coltrane:  “I know that was really important for me to have an undulating hang consistent throughout the run. I did that, as you know, in Barbican. I wanted the gradation throughout the walls to mirror the striations in the pictures. It had to be black and white, obviously because that’s the chroma of the work: gray to black and white. And the hang felt like that because that’s, in my head That’s how it flowed. I kept thinking about jazz, you know, like I saw like Coltrane: This is what happens when you go on a rabbit hole. And like, you know, and like you just see the notes and you’re like, this is crazy. I think it was Giant Steps or something.” – Toyin Ojih Odutola
  • Into the History:
  • With Additional Readings:
    • Gayatri Spivak, Can the Subaltern Speak? Reflections on the History of an Idea
      • Erin J. Gilbert references Spivak when discussing Akanke listening to Aldo and the relationship between the Eshu and the Koba: “Gayatri Spivak talks about the subaltern speaks and this way in which the subaltern doesn’t lack the ability to speak because they lack language. They lack the political power and agency, and it is because they are not heard by the Supreme class. Right? So this notion that listening comes out of love, but it also opens up the space for change. And that without being heard, there is no change because your proposal is that through the moment of listening and through the moment in which there is love, there’s the opportunity for and change in the entire system itself.”
    • John Berger, Ways of Seeing
      • As quoted by Erin J. Gilbert: “drawing is an art form that is fundamentally open and extensive rather than closed and contained. And then it’s a manner of probing and in imaginative moment, both on the part of the author and the viewer who perceives it.”
    • Authors mentioned as influential for the making of A Countervailing Theory: