Ever since March, life has been anything but normal.
The doors of bars, theatres, restaurants, and galleries have been secured against the public, and summer has been and gone in a homogenous blur of Zoom calls. But, while some can’t wait for life to return to normal, other voices have seen the enforced pausing of life as an opportunity for restructuring and dismantling society as we know it. And, though I remain sceptical about how far institutions will use this time to dismantle racist structures or governments will address their ongoing destruction of the environment, Toyin Ojih Odutola’s A Countervailing Theory – the US-Nigerian artist’s first UK exhibition which has opened at the Barbican Centre’s Curve gallery – proved a powerful reminder of how superficial social structures are, and how a radical imagination might (over time) bring about a new normal.
The fictional narrative underpinning A Countervailing Theory, as Odutola describes on a plaque at the end of the exhibition, is that the forty chalk, charcoal and pastel images showcased in the exhibition are actually ‘life-size scans’ of pictorial markings found in a black shale rock deposit in Riyom, Plateau State, Nigeria. Imagining herself as an archaeologist, Odutola explains that the pictorial markings are ‘indicative of a civilisation predating the oldest civilization indigenous to the region, the Nok.’ For a brief second, I was whipped up in Odutola’s imagination: I believed that her images were mock-ups of pictorial markings found in a Nigerian rock deposit. And, for that brief second, I felt something akin to when I read David Olusoga’s Black and British and found out about the Benin bronzes for the first time: that to be connected to Africa via the Caribbean did not only entail the pain of the Middle Passage but the pride of a connection to a prosperous continent.
But, it is all a fiction: A Countervailing Theory does not consist of ‘life-size scans’ of pictorial markings found on black shale rock. Instead, Odutola’s forty images unfold the development of a society entirely dreamed up by the artist. That the whole exhibition is conceived by imagination rather than archaeology, however, is also a testament to the power of art against objectivity. As the exhibition guide explains, the title of the exhibition, A Countervailing Theory, references the idea (often used in politics and economics) of countering an existing power with an equal force. The ancient society Odutola’s forty images evoke – one in which women rule and are served by male labourers, and in which individuals are forbidden from forging sexual or emotional relationships outside their own gender – counters power dynamics of existing societies with an alternative vision. The suggestion seems to be that if Odutola can dream up a world in which women rule and homosexuality is enforced, the rules governing our society are equally arbitrary – the prime difference being who the dreamer is, and so what power dynamics they wish to enforce in society.
And, this subjective nature of the narratives underpinning society seems to be a key theme of Odutola’s exhibition. The plaque at the end of the exhibition may construct a fictitious narrative of what the forty images in the exhibition are, but is it really any more fictitious than the narrative promoted by the British Empire – the erasure of thousands of years of pre-colonial history? In fact, Odutola’s medium of choice – chalk, charcoal, and pastel – seem to reflect the fragility of inscribing narratives; the ease by which narratives can be erased.
And, the truth is, the narrative Odutola presents in A Countervailing Theory has been erased by the British Empire. While it is fictitious that the images are ‘life-size scans’ of pictorial markings, the matriarchal societies they depict did indeed exist on the African continent, only they were condemned and destroyed as part of colonialism. For example, in Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred and Anger, Audre Lorde describes a sculpture from the court of the Queen Mother of Benin that depicts the Queen surrounded by her court women and warriors. Lorde reads the sculpture as a ‘celebration of the human power to achieve success in practical and material ventures’ which, as she explains, in Dahomey is understood to be a uniquely female power. Lorde’s words could equally be used to describe the scenes in A Countervailing Theory in which women are depicted as rulers, protected by female warriors (The Empress’s Guard), and oversee the work of male labourers (To Be Chosen and Not Known). This is a world in which Black women, not white men, rule.
And within this world of Black matriarchy, female sexuality is not repressed or condemned. Unlike in our society where we’ve recently seen Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion lambasted for rapping about their enjoyment of sex in their latest single ‘WAP’, Odutola praises female sexuality – one of my favourite images was Accepting Impermanence in which a man is depicted orally pleasuring a woman. In Odutola’s fictional society, however, heterosexual relationships are banned – the fate of this couple is revealed at the end of the sequence of images – and so Odutola’s images largely celebrate homosexual female relationships. These range from more homosocial relationships, such as that depicted in To See and To Know, to homosexual love in A Parting Gift, Hers and Hers. While homosexuality continues to be illegal in Nigeria, many academics have noted that pre-colonial African countries did not condemn homosexuality. For example, Bernardine Evaristo, referencing rock paintings of the San people of Zimbabwe that show sexual relationships between men, argues that it was in fact homophobia that was imported into Africa.
By depicting a matriarchal society in which homosexual relationships are enforced, Odutola is not simply conjuring a dream-utopia that promotes the antithesis of the white heterosexual patriarchy. Odutola is referencing pre-colonial societies that actually existed to some extent in Africa. For me, the catalogue of forty images therefore represent a radical act of reclamation – specifically the reclaiming by a Black woman of the ability to tell her own story. A timely message when Megan Thee Stallion was also criticised for speaking out about being shot by Tory Lanez.
Colonialism is based on the idea that the word of the white man is the law, and so all other voices and narratives are erased. For a long time, British museums and art galleries have been doing the same: reflecting back a world that Black women have never been a part of. But, A Countervailing Theory reminds us that power dynamics are inseparable from the narratives we place at the core of society. Odutola’s choice of medium may be easy to erase, but the seeds of the ideas planted by A Countervailing Theory are far more difficult to destroy. Once we know and remember that there are alternatives to the power dynamics currently underpinning society, we are each given the radical potential to imagine alternative societies – just like Odutola does in this exhibition.
A Countervailing Theory was the perfect exhibition to mark my return to visiting art galleries post-lockdown. It was art as I love it: I could escape the hustle and bustle of London, stand in a darkened room and meditate on beautiful imagery for an hour, while also critically reflecting on society in the process. Most importantly, A Countervailing Theory brought a much-needed dose of optimism into my life – who knows, maybe the recent enforced pausing of life will prove to be an opportunity for restructuring and dismantling society as we know it…
A Countervailing Theory is open at the Barbican Centre’s The Curve gallery until Sunday 24th January 2021. Admission is free. Find out more here.