"Birmingham" by Toyin Ojih Odutola as part of their Recent Acquisitions series at the Frye Art Museum

In the work of Toyin Ojih Odutola, black reigns. The Nigeria-born, New York City-based artist explores blackness as an identity and a reality that is both seen and experienced. She's known for how she renders skin color—black on black on black—building it up in ribbons that weave together to create her portraits. The way that skin holds light in her pieces adds dynamism to the people in them. Sometimes, if I squint, I think I can see those ribbons slithering around each other.

The way Toyin Ojih Odutola renders skin is remarkable and unique
The way Toyin Ojih Odutola renders skin is remarkable and unique. JK

I'm used to seeing Toyin's work in ballpoint pen—I remember seeing her portraits for the first time and being drawn to the way that the ink and the pressure from her pen warped the surface of the paper. And when I first saw this series of prints, I believed the material to be chalk. In the corner of the print on the far right, the inky black color looks smudged; her brother's skin seems to seep through his gold-leaf decorated white top. It's neither a chalk nor pen drawing, but a lithographic print. An image drawn onto stone or metal plates with oil-based crayon, filled with ink, then pressed on paper.
Her brother looking over his shoulder.
Her brother looking over his shoulder. JK

In "Birmingham,"—named after the city in Alabama where she took these reference photos—the subject is her brother. In this series, it's as if Toyin is capturing him in a moment when he's not quite aware of her presence. Moving, thinking, existing, not posing—like he can't stay still. Reminds me of my brother.

"Birmingham" by Toyin Odjih Odutola will be up at the Frye Art Museum until December 8.