We sent staff writer Mary Walsh to cover a conversation between artists Toyin Ojih Odutola, Barnard’s Lida A. Orzeck ’68 Artist-in-Residence, and Mary Sibande, Johannesburg and Venice Biennale artist.
Moderated by Kellie Jones, a Columbia Professor of Art History and MacArthur Fellow, these accomplished women discussed the political role artists play in society.
Toyin Ojih Odutola and Mary Sibande aren’t here to for your praise or your judgements; they’re here to start a conversation.
Mary Sibande opens up the night with a quick introduction to her mannequin Sophie, the central character of her work whose identity combines those of Sibande herself and her female relatives. Sophie, Sibande explains, was initially inspired by her grandmother’s stories of forced domestic labor in South Africa during the apartheid. In her work, Sibande aims to reclaim the power and identity of black women who suffered under the legacy of Dutch colonialism. This is achieved through the fashions and colors worn by Sibande’s characters.
For example, by juxtaposing traditionally working-class colors, like the blue of mail carriers and sanitation workers, with the grandiosity of Victorian inspired garb, Sibande places systematically oppressed women into unexpected positions of power. Yet another inspiring piece is one in which a black, female domestic worker triumphantly sits on the back of a rearing horse– a more pointed example of the subversion of white/Dutch colonialism.
After Sibande finishes her presentation, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Barnard’s Artist-in-Residence and solo-exhibitionist at the Whitney, briefly introduces her work and its evolution. By rendering the characters of her work with patterned skin, Ojih Odutola allows her audience to see the figures simply as they are, without the implications often associated with race. While her initial artwork centered solely on the figures without incorporating background or vibrant tones, Ojih Odutola has since fallen in love with color. She uses both the surroundings and vibrancy of the piece to expand her characters’ stories.
Both Mary Sibande and Toyin Odutola left the audience with inspiring and eye-opening remarks during the Q&A session.
When asked about monuments as art, with specific regard to the taking down of confederate monuments, Toyin Ojih Odutola explained how it was time to turn off the spotlight on white patriarchy. The audience (in this case, people who have been systematically oppressed) are notable, worthwhile, and sick of this white one-man show.
In her reply to the question surrounding black female artists’ struggles to find spaces to display their artwork, Mary Sibande simply stated that one has to take it. Just like that. Ojih Odutola chimed in that one can’t apologize for entering any space. Everything you do is significant, she told the audience, you have to be unafraid.
Unafraid is the perfect word to describe these artists, as this conversation made clear.
artist in residence via barnard.edu