Black female artists were put in the spotlight to talk about their art and experiences in their careers on Wednesday night.
Current Orzeck Artist-in-Residence Toyin Ojih Odutola joined sculptural artist Mary Sibande in discussion, moderated by Columbia art history and archaeology professor Kellie Jones in the Event Oval of the Diana Center.
The event, which was the first in a series of Barnard events celebrating Black History Month, focused on themes of equity, power, and race in art.
After short introductions by Jones and Anne Higonnet, department chair of art history at Barnard, Sibande and Odutola presented select works to the audience in order to familiarize them with their art.
Sibande’s work focuses on an imagined alter ego named Sophie, whom she dresses in a series of different brightly-colored outfits inspired by South African religious wear and the uniforms of domestic workers. Color theory features prominently in her work; earlier sculptures of Sophie are clothed in muted tans, but began to shift into rich blues and purples as the dresses become more extravagant.
“Sophie connects all the stories from the women in my family… I felt the need to pay homage to these women,” Sibande said. “She was about wishing; she wanted to expand and move away from her background.”
Similarly, Odutola’s work places emphasis on color—both the lack of it in her earlier works and the abundance of it later on. Sketches from the beginning of her artistic career were done entirely in ballpoint pen, placing emphasis on shading and dimension in monochrome.
“I wasn’t prepared for how some of my professors not only looked at the pen, but to look at what the pen could do. I saw that as so indicative of how blackness is viewed,” Odutola said. “There’s this flattening that happens when we engage with that material and that color—of course the social implications of it, but also historically it’s not a color you use in the foreground. It’s the darkness, it’s the shadow. Light brings forward.”
Odutola’s recent drawings and paintings have been diversified in their color palette; now there is an emphasis on rich, varied hues. The works feature a multitude of black characters in different settings—from a restaurant to an apartment to standing in a river.
“[I wanted to create] a world where there’s not black pain. They don’t care; they’re not smiling for you, they’re not performing themselves for you, they’re just there in a space, and they really couldn’t care less what you think of them,” said Odutola. “Sometimes I feel like I’m struggling with it. I always feel like I’m not getting them, but that’s the point: I’m not there to capture this person. They can be anybody.”
Much of the discussion highlighted not only the artists’ work, though, but their experience as black artists as well.
Odutola and Sibande both expressed their need to seek out opportunities and “take up space” in order to find places to display their work.
“I don’t know how it is here in the U.S., but in South Africa, no one gives you space. You have to take it. So you, as a black young woman artist, you have to make work and take your work out there. No one will come knock at your door, go ‘hey, what do you have?’ So it’s about taking. Go out there and just do what you need to do,” Sibande said.
In response to a question about the ethics of taking down racist and colonialist monuments, Odutola chose to explain her experience in the form of an extended metaphor.
She described racial, gender, and sexual power dynamics as an amphitheater show, with the center stage spotlight given to cisgender white men; the farther away from the stage, the less visible audience members were—with Odutola describing herself as located somewhere near the 300th row.
“I want to turn the light off the stage. I’m really tired of that stage. It’s hurting my eyes,” Odutola said. “If you turn the light off, and [the people on the stage] finally crank their bodies back and see who’s behind them and around them, where is the center anymore?”