Toyin Ojih Odutola - Photo by Beth Wilkinson
Toyin Ojih Odutola - Photo by Beth Wilkinson

Zadie Smith and Toyin Ojih Odutola’s works have not only had a profound effect on the world at large, but on each other. To mark the unveiling of the Gallery’s latest commission, Sadie by Toyin Ojih Odutola, Katy Hessel, art historian and founder of @thegreatwomenartists spoke to both of them about capturing, and being captured. Friends, admirers and followers of each others’ work, we celebrate one of the greatest living artists portraying one of the greatest living writers.


Zadie, thank you so much for speaking with me. This portrait is truly incredible. I would love to start off by asking what you were first drawn to when viewing Toyin Ojih Odutola's work, and how did it make you feel?

I felt close to excellence. To virtuosity. That is probably the most superficial thing that can be said about Toyin’s work but it was my first reaction. It was a long time since I’d stood in a gallery and been genuinely awed! And knowing she was young was a part of that thrill: you know you’re having the privilege to witness the early part of what is going to be an extraordinary body of work. 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. I went back to The Whitney a few times to try and take on board what I was looking at, beyond its obvious and overwhelming beauty. And each time it was like walking into a novel. Not only because it was filled with fully imagined and animated people within a dense narrative, but because the world is so self-sufficient, so obviously the product of a singular, obsessive vision and so independent of reality (while using some of the tools of realism.) Yet each picture, despite its roots in the imagined, gives the sense of being absolutely necessary – of having to be exactly as it is. That mixture of the imagined and the urgent is what really struck me. I read her work as a giant, visual piece of speculative fiction, and the speculation is upon what is usually called ‘black history.’ Everything about that concept is being questioned: not only what happened, but what might have happened, and what could still happen. And nothing is free from this creative questioning, not even space and time. But the kind of questions her drawings ask are never pre-packaged or familiar. They are the artist’s own. They seem to me to stand outside the usual projections viewers often cast over black figures in art – they have in fact a kind of aristocratic indifference to their viewers! I see in Toyin’s portraits the question: What would it be like to live free from all projections? I can’t think of a more vital question in the history of figuration, especially as it concerns images of the black human.


Following on from this, how do you think she has translated these aspects that you first witnessed into your portrait?

It’s so hard for me to talk about a portrait of myself. The whole idea is surreal: I’m so used to making characters it’s hard to submit to the idea of being one… But I remember seeing a portrait Toyin had done of another extraordinary black artist, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, she’s sitting across a lunch table, in headwrap and glasses, and I thought: here is a portrait of a black woman at her ease, who is used to being the one-who-looks but for the moment is being looked at, but who, in the moment of being looked at, has not been rendered an object. Lynette looks out of that picture with all the same amusement and urgency and aesthetic curiosity that I imagine Toyin was experiencing as she looked at her. And this equality of gaze between subject and artist is not something I remember ever really seeing in any portrait of a woman when I was growing up, never mind any portrait of a black woman. And that’s how I feel about my portrait. It’s an artist looking at a writer looking back. I don’t like posing for photographs, and Toyin works by photographing first, but she did it with such incredible speed and lightness on her iPhone, while we listened to the new Solange, and smoked a few cigarettes – and I felt none of the humiliation or boredom I usually feel in front of a camera. It was just a conversation: an exchange of energy. I was actually wearing a headwrap in the photos - I was growing an Angela Davis ’fro underneath it after having braids for a while - but later I sent Toyin photos of my hair as I now wear it and she included it. Not long ago she told me that she had been informed that my afro would be the first of its kind on a portrait of a woman in the Gallery. I delight in that fact! And in the map of North West London behind me, which was my father’s chosen home (he was a Croydon boy originally) and became my birthright. And in the faint trace of a palm tree that links me to my mother’s homeland, Jamaica, and through her mother and her mother and so on back to some corner of West Africa I’ll never be able to identify exactly. To relate myself to any of these places and ideas requires imagination. People spend their times on DNA websites or in old family albums thinking they will find some ultimate genetic truth about themselves, but to me life is not made meaningful by conglomerations of genes but by stories, memories, commitments, connections and images that persist, develop and deepen between people, among families and through communities. This portrait makes me feel as if I belong somewhere, and also reminds me that a sense of belonging is as much a choice and a decision as it is a matter of contingency. I like to feel the thick bounce of my natural hair. I love to walk the streets of my old neighborhood and dare to call them mine. I love to consider what habits of mind and movement and taste and sensibility may have come to me from my ancestors….

A lot of young artists, it strikes me, would be more heavily influenced by the logic of the contemporary digital photograph and think of a portrait as merely an expression of an individual personality, like a selfie. That sort of a portrait is applying for something from the viewer – approval. But when Toyin draws people she seems to me closer to an earlier moment in portraiture when what was being revealed was not a particular person to whom you may or may not relate, but rather a whole world which you are being asked to recognize as significant, whether it happens to be like yours or not. There’s nothing in a Holbein or an Ife head that requires a like button. They exist on their own terms, like the Kings and Queens they depicted. I’m sure a few of the photographs Toyin took of me had that selfie-like pleading for approval that is within me as it is within all of us. But I am very grateful she chose to draw me as the person I would most like to be. Free of the projections of others, boldly at home in the world, connected to a beautiful heritage – and ready to make something new.


It is interesting having read your texts and listened to you speak extensively on Toyin's work. How was it then to open up this dialogue in a new visual dimension, and to have her analyse you and your work?

The key surprise and joy for me was seeing the title. I can’t really put it into words. I guess the sense I have always had as a writer is I am not anybody. I am somebody who plays at being other people in stories. But the portrait says something else. It says: you have a name, you come from somewhere, not everything is a fiction. To use the kids’ language I felt seen! The edition of the name gives the image a talismanic quality somehow, like the Haitian Saint Soleil paintings I got obsessed with when I was writing On Beauty. There’s a kind of hoodoo to it… like it’s returning my real self to me. And it reminded me of that Ursula Le Guin concept in the Wizard of Earthsea, that if you say the right name of any thing in this world then you have magical control of it. It’s just about finding the right words. Which is itself a great metaphor for all artistic actions…

But I also want to resist the idea that Toyin’s work is only about its manifest content: people. The more I work with her and talk to her and write about her it becomes obvious to me that she is at least as much a dealer in abstraction as she is a narrative artist. Space is important to her, line, shadow, time – as it is expressed on a canvas – landscape, ridges, circles, waves. Her influences are myriad: there is as much of Japanese scroll painting in her line as there is American comic books and Nigerian wood carving. The closer you get to her line on paper the more intensely you notice that each corner is packed with a dense patterning, hatching, scribbling, that are all at least as significant as those distractingly beautiful men and women….


You've previously described Toyin as the ‘central light in a thrilling new generation of Black artists’. How does it feel to be portrayed by one of the greatest Black artists alive today, for a work that will be held in a museum forever? 

When I was a kid I used to bunk off school to go to The National Gallery and the Portrait Gallery both. I never went in there with any expectation of ever seeing a piece of art by any diaspora artist. I knew the African sculptures and paintings and drums and kenti cloths in my mum’s place, and I knew the paintings and portraits you saw in town, but the two categories were absolutely separate in my mind. The few black figures I saw in town were moors and servants, exotics and slaves, ‘savages’ and curiosities. I treasured every glimpse I got of them, but I had to work around them in my mind: contextualize them and refuse to be hurt by them and instead try to imagine the real lives of the people who had posed for such pictures over the centuries and try to feel love and compassion for their participations, however compromised, in these cruel or patronizing or simply grotesque images of subjection and objectification. It was quite a mental operation to have to perform as a child! And must sound insane to a younger generation. But, at the time, it was slim pickings.

To know that there are now black children who will walk into these same spaces and be able to look at images of black people that require no self harm to appreciate, and to which they can bring the questions and curiosities of art rather than the desperate enquiries of identification and projection (“Is that really how I am seen by others?”) makes me so happy. I feel so proud of Toyin, first and foremost. I know her art will have a tremendous effect on young people because I’m a grown ass woman and it’s had a tremendous effect on me. Becoming familiar with her images is like having something I missed and wanted in childhood delivered to me now, as an adult. And to be a Toyin creation myself, on the walls of the Portrait Gallery? It’s incredible. I still can’t quite believe it.


Firstly, my congratulations, this is one of the most beautiful and powerful portraits I have ever witnessed. What did you first notice about Zadie when you met, and how have you translated this in this portrait?

From first meeting to hanging out and getting to know Zadie, what struck me was her humanity. Her curiosity and empathy for diverse cultural and geographical points of view.

How she is able to hold all those things within her and how that gifts a perspective of a world unique to her—not Zadie, the writer, Sadie, the person. Often we look to portraits to celebrate the accomplishments of the person, but I’m interested in a kind of portraiture that connects to the viewer. This isn’t to say I didn’t want to give Zadie the space she rightly deserves and has more than earned; I wanted young people to see her portrait and feel included in the capture. Her generous spirit, her consideration, her humor, her sharp intellect, her strength and poise—all of it—that is yours as a viewer, this is a portrait of you as well.


Zadie Smith has said that she pictures her existence as a Venn diagram of overlapping communities: ‘I’m a black person, also a woman, also a wife and mother, a Brit, a European – for the moment – a Londoner, a New Yorker, a writer, a feminist, a second-generation Jamaican, a member of the African diaspora, a Game of Thrones-er, an academic, a comedy-nerd, a theory-dork, a hip-hop-head and so on’. How have you aimed to encompass all these different aspects into this one work?

I think with every sitter the person being captured often encompasses and transcends many landscapes and affiliations. I wanted to create a portrait that was singular to her yet also address the traditions of British portraiture exemplified in the National Portrait Gallery. I’m not interested in injecting narratives into something palatable for colonialist definitions and/or projects, for I see the presence of people like Zadie as always being an illuminating and fundamental part of Britain—whether that has been recognized or not. She exists, so many Zadies exist, in many spaces, always have, and they contain multitudes. That was how I approached the commission.

One of my favorite works in the collection is Paula Rego’s portrait of Germaine Greer. The power in that capture also inspired my considerations for Zadie’s portrait: how Greer holds her space, is an intellectual, and completely at ease with herself. In everything I draw, my hope is to learn from the experience. The creative choices in the portrayal of Zadie were a means of engaging with and capturing a very specific person who holds her own not just in the space I drew her in, but included in the wealth of stories of Black Britain. It’s an homage to the richness, vastness, and diversity of that culture, that community, as well as her person.   


Much of your work portrays imaginary characters for the purpose of storytelling. How did you go about creating a portrait of a real life person who is also known for imagining narratives? Additionally, to what extent have you captured the reality of Zadie vs your own imagination?

The imaginary came into form with the space Zadie is occupying in the portrait. It is an imagined interior, but that doesn’t make it any less of an authentic place. I wanted the composition to play into her imaginary, which surrounds her and comes from within her, alluding to its vividness and beauty. The narrative of this portrayal, as I mentioned before, mirrors a larger story of Black Britain, and how much the culture has been integral to British society. Zadie and her stories are a part of that narrative and I hope that is what people feel when they see the work: the potential for stories to proliferate and thrive, coming from a girl in NW London and beyond.


You and Zadie both seem to have mutual admiration for each other, and have collaborated on many occasions, including her writing extensively on your work. How did it feel to open up this dialogue in a new visual dimension, and for you to be analysing her and her work?

I’ll never forget the first time 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. Every one of her publications since I have consumed voraciously, and it continues to amaze how she always adapts her text and perspective, her willingness to learn and to grow--and not be afraid of making mistakes in the public forum of discourse. To create a portrait of a woman whose presence has been significant in my mind, influencing my own work, has been an incredible honor.


Contradictory elements feature throughout, such as the improbably angular floor or the physically and celestial-like glowing cloak and shoes. Do you want this portrait to be grounded in place or time? Should we know where or what the map signifies?

I tend to lead from a formalist framework, where I want a viewer to be aware of what they are looking at is a picture, an illusion on paper; however, I do this to alert to how images in general are manipulated to get at meaning. No picture is accidental, there are intentional decisions made throughout. There are stylistic choices that are packed into Zadie’s portrayal, but the overall feel of the work is meant to be inviting. The angles, mark-making, contrasts and shadows all play into that invitation. You are in this room with her, and she is addressing you. Her presence cannot and will not be denied—and your presence as the viewer in this conversation and space is accounted for as well.


You often incorporate shadows into your work. Can you tell us about the significance of this shadow to Zadie's left?

The shadow on the left side of the portrait came late into the work. I wanted to have a visual element in dialogue with the Kilburn map, where she is from, behind her. I wanted to pay respects to her Jamaican roots which are inextricable to her writing and her view of the world. Though she was born in London, Jamaica is with her wherever she is, as are all the places her ancestors travelled and she has traversed to arrive at the woman we see in “Sadie.” To incorporate that into a visual language was important, but I wanted the application to be intrinsic. When you see the shadows of the trees, you are seeing her ancestors—all our ancestors—in this space with her. They carry her and she carries them. 


How does it feel for you to have created a portrait of one of the most celebrated Black authors of this generation for the National Portrait Gallery? How do you want this portrait to remember and immortalise this person?

When I got the letter that I was to create a commission portrait of Zadie, I cried. The National Portrait Gallery is one of my favorite museums in the world, and Zadie is one of my all-time favorite writers. It was surreal. I took this commission to heart and wanted to create an homage to significant work this woman has done, but also a love letter to Black Britain. To show an accomplished, brilliant, self-assured person in her element, with her natural hair out and free, and legs squarely crossed, taking her place as she sees fit, looking directly at you—at all of us. This isn’t to say: “yes, she belongs in this space, too”; but rather, “we all belong here, always have and always will.” That is the gift Zadie’s writings have given us and, in my attempts at this portrait, I hope to give folks the same inclusion and freedom to imagine whatever spaces they want to occupy, to share their perspectives, their stories, their pride without question—and to know that it is as welcomed and valued as it is always evolving and expanding.  

Thank you both so much! 

Discover the portrait of 'Sadie' (Zadie Smith) by Toyin Ojih Odutola in our Collection


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