by VICTORIA L. VALENTINE
THE MUTUAL ADMIRATION between storytellers Zadie Smith and Toyin Ojih Odutola is palpable. The British novelist has written about the Nigerian-born visual artist’s work for British Vogue and contributed an essay to her forthcoming catalog, “Toyin Ojih Odutola: A Countervailing Theory,” which will accompany a show at the Barbican Centre in London, the artist’s first-ever UK exhibition.
In December 2018, the two engaged in a conversation at the Drawing Center in New York during “For Opacity: Elijah Burgher, Toyin Ojih Odutola, and Nathaniel Mary Quinn,” a group exhibition featuring the artist’s drawings. At one point, Smith said Ojih Odutola was “talking like a novelist” about her art.
TOYIN OJIH ODUTOLA, “Sadie” (Zadie Smith),” 2018-2019 (pastel, charcoal, pencil and graphite on paper). | © Toyin Ojih Odutola
Their latest collaboration is a painting. The National Portrait Gallery in London commissioned Ojih Odutola to create a portrait of Smith. A vital literary voice and one of the great novelists of her generation, the UK museum already had three photographs of Smith in its collection and wanted to immortalize her with a painting.
London-born Smith is the author of several award-winning novels and short story collections, including her debut bestseller “White Teeth,” “Swing Time,” and “On Beauty,” which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. “Grand Union: Stories” was published last year. “Intimations: Six Essays” is forthcoming later this month. A professor of fiction at New York University, Smith has written about the work of a few artists—photographer Deana Lawson, and painters Henry Taylor and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, in addition to Ojih Odutola.
The National Portrait Gallery revealed the portrait of Smith this week. Ojih Odutola depicts her seated casually wearing a long red jacket draped around her shoulders. One of her legs is crossed with her low-heeled, animal print ankle boot resting on her knee. Effortlessly stylish.
Smith is situated in the space of three planes that reflect her identity—the floor where her shadow is cast; a large framed map hanging behind her that depicts Kilburn, the London neighborhood where she grew up; and the wall on which it is displayed, where silhouetted foliage pays homage to her Jamaican roots.
The museum published insights from both parties. Smith and Ojih-Odutola spoke about the portrait with Katy Hessel, an art historian and founder of The Great Women Artists, an Instagram account and podcast. The artist said the painting was a “love letter to Black Britain.”
Each expressed deeply felt reactions to the other’s work. Smith recalled paying multiple visits to “Toyin Ojih Odutola: To Wander Determined.” The exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art was the artist’s first solo museum show in New York.
The author said “each time it was like walking into a novel.” In the interview, she talked further about how Ojih Odutola’s work makes her feel:
“I think when work is as visually appealing as Toyin’s it takes a moment to get over the sheer sensory pleasure and to be able to properly engage with the aesthetic, with the ideas—with the totality of the work.” — Zadie Smith
Toyin Ojih Odutola. | Photo by Beth Wilkinson
Ojih Odutola told Hessel, “I read ‘White Teeth.’ I was a teenager in Alabama, and reading her words I felt a kinship and a rigor to her craft that changed my view of the world.” That early response to Smith’s work made the prospect of creating a portrait of her an emotional and profound opportunity:
The artist titled the portrait “Sadie,” the author’s given name before she changed it to Zadie as a teenager. The painting will go on view near Smith’s hometown at the Brent Museum and Archives in December, part of Brent 2020: London Borough of Culture, a yearlong celebration of cultural programming.
Currently undergoing major redevelopment, the National Portrait Gallery is closed until 2023. When it reopens, “Sadie” will be displayed in the museum’s newly transformed gallery space.