Toyin Ojih Odutola with installation view from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden presentation of Toyin Ojih Odutola: A Countervailing Theory, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 2021. Credit: Matailong Du

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Toyin Ojih Odutola: A Countervailing Theory is a dark narrative exhibited as such in an ominously lit, circular gallery space on the second floor of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Visitors are fully immersed in 40 individual artworks that, together, shape a mythology created by Nigerian-born artist Toyin Ojih Odutola. The pieces in A Countervailing Theory are strikingly detailed. Using charcoal, pastel, and chalk on board, the artist uses light and dark to depict a society fraught with issues that ought to be familiar to all of us. Accompanying the exhibition is a musical soundscape created by Ghanaian British sound artist Peter Adjaye that sets the tone for a dark, twisted mythology—unfolding like a film as each frame tells a part of the story. 

Mythologies offer insight into the world’s origins, giving us some rationale for how things came to be despite how unrealistic the narratives seem. Using the form of a myth, Ojih Odutola offers an understanding of oppression and its consequences. In her story, women warriors, known as Eshu, have created a subservient class of men (the Koba) to serve them, mine, and cultivate food, but the two groups are prohibited from comingling. The story parallels the reality that people from Africa faced when they were brought by Europeans to the western hemisphere to cultivate agriculture, and, for many years, were forbidden from intermixing with White people.

Ojih Odutola’s myth provides an explanation on how injustice prevails in a society where the ruling class can break the laws they’ve created and not be held accountable for their actions while the oppressed are punished. The theory under consideration here is that vulnerable populations are held responsible for the offenses of their oppressors: When the Eshu and Koba interact, it is not the Eshu who is put on trial, but the Koba who receive the consequences. 

Ojih Odutola is a Black woman telling a creation story. Considering that Africa is the cradle of humanity, it seems valid for the artist to depict Black women as creators. 

A Countervailing Theory offers viewers an alternative perspective on oppressions we know as consequences of colonialism and slavery. If Ojih Odutola’s mythology does anything, it allows viewers to escape the narrative we live in and observe one that seems far-fetched in order to assess our current state of existence. It raises the question: When the oppressed are coerced by their oppressor into troubling situations, should they really be held totally responsible for their actions? 

Ojih Odutola’s project is an extremely ambitious one: 40 separate artworks coming together to tell the story of a people is masterful work. The movement on the canvases is contained within individual frames that, when viewed together, depict a grand narrative whose goal is to move us closer to a tolerance for justice. Due to the exhibit’s epic tale of oppression that highlights how laws work in favor of those who create them, it seems impossible that the total works were created in 2019, yet here they are. This exhibition is a must-see for the skillfulness employed by Ojih Odutola, but also for its narrative: A Countervailing Theory allows us to detach ourselves when we look at a world that seems impossible to consider the possibilities. 

Toyin Ojih Odutola: A Countervailing Theory will be on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden through April 3, 2022. hirshhorn.si.edu. Free.