Zadie Smith (‘Sadie’) by Toyin Ojih Odutola

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[IMAGE] A Black woman sits back on a wooden chair in front of a map of London. She is wearing a red cape and gold boots. Her legs are crossed and her arms are folded.
A portrait of the prize-winning writer Zadie Smith, reflecting her cultural heritage.
'Sadie' (Zadie Smith)
by Toyin Ojih Odutola
pastel, charcoal, pencil and graphite on paper, 2018-2019
88 in. x 42 in. (2235 mm x 1066 mm) overall
NPG 7105
© Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
On display in Room 30 on Floor 1 at the National Portrait Gallery

Zadie Smith (born 1975) is a prize-winning writer of novels, short stories and essays, and is a professor of fiction at New York University. Her writing often refers to events in politics and Culture The customs and beliefs, art, way of life, and social organisation of a particular country or group. , and deals with issues relating to Identity Who or what somebody is, including their characteristics, feelings or beliefs. and belonging, sometimes reflecting her own life and upbringing in a diverse neighbourhood.

Smith was born in London to a Jamaican mother and English father. She was given the name Sadie at birth, as in the title of this portrait, but changed her name to Zadie when she was 14.

Analysing the portrait

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[IMAGE] A Black woman sits back on a wooden chair in front of a map of London. She is wearing a red cape and gold boots. Her legs are crossed and her arms are folded.
'Sadie' (Zadie Smith), by Toyin Ojih Odutola, 2018-2019

Look carefully at the portrait. Take your time – look at it for at least a whole minute. What can you see?

    • Toyin Ojih Odutola has drawn Zadie Smith with her legs crossed and arms folded. She looks relaxed and confident. 
    • Her head is tilted, and she looks at the artist – and at us – in a warm, friendly way. 
    • The portrait seems to invite us, the viewers, in so that we feel as if we are part of the conversation. 
    • Zadie Smith’s red cape and gold boots make her look heroic (like a superhero!). Ojih Odutola is a fan of Smith and wanted to show her as a strong, accomplished, brilliant woman.
    • Smith wore a headwrap for the Sitting A period of time when somebody sits or stands to have their picture painted or be photographed. , but she later sent Ojih Odutola a photograph of herself with her hair in an Afro style. 
    • The artist chose to show Smith with her hair uncovered in a natural Afro style as a celebration of her Black Identity Who or what somebody is, including their characteristics, feelings or beliefs. . Both the artist and Sitter The person in a portrait. wanted to reference Smith’s Cultural identity The way groups or individuals define themselves or others, in terms of ethnicity, nationality, language, religion, gender or other characteristics. in this way. 
    • This was the first drawn or painted portrait in the National Portrait Gallery of a woman with an Afro hairstyle.
    • The map and palm leaf shadows on the wall behind her reference Zadie Smith’s Mixed heritage The fact of having a family background in which your parents come from two different countries, cultures, religions or ethnic groups.
    • The map is of Brent in northwest London, where she grew up. 
    • Ojih Odutola has used palm leaves to symbolise Jamaica where Zadie Smith’s mother is from. They also link her to her mother’s ancestry, which extends back through the generations to West Africa.
    • Ojih Odutola worked from a photograph taken on her iPhone during a Sitting A period of time when somebody sits or stands to have their picture painted or be photographed. with Zadie Smith (while the two listened to music by the singer Solange Knowles). Smith does not like having her photograph taken but remembers the session as ‘just a conversation: an exchange of energy’. 
    • Ojih Odutola then drew the portrait and added the imagined background of the map and palm leaf shadows to help reflect Smith’s Cultural identity The way groups or individuals define themselves or others, in terms of ethnicity, nationality, language, religion, gender or other characteristics.
    • Photographs taken on mobile phones might make us think of quick portrait snaps that capture an individual’s personality. By adding further elements to the portrait, Ojih Odutola makes us aware of the wider Culture The customs and beliefs, art, way of life, and social organisation of a particular country or group. and Heritage The history, traditions, buildings and objects that a country or society has had for many years and that are considered an important part of its character. that is part of – but also bigger than – the individual. 
    • As Zadie Smith said in an interview, the portrait reveals to the viewer ‘a whole world which you are being asked to recognise as significant’.
    • Ojih Odutola used Pastel A type of crayon made from pigments (colour) ground with chalk. , Charcoal A black material made by burning wood slowly in an oven with little air. and pencil on paper to make the life-size drawing. 
    • She used a combination of techniques, including line drawing, dense Hatching An artistic technique used to create tonal or shading effects by drawing (or painting or scribing) closely spaced parallel lines. and scribbling, and smudging. 
    • She has used different types of mark-making for the different areas of the portrait. For example, the soft palm leaf shadows are made by smudging the Pastel A type of crayon made from pigments (colour) ground with chalk. . This contrasts with the Graphic Designs and drawings that are made using simple lines and sometimes strong colours. lines, dashes and dot-like marks that she has used to draw the map. 
    • She has used fluid lines and shapes to suggest the folds of Smith’s cloak and trousers. The pattern created by the folds of her cloak and white top seem to echo the shapes of the palm leaves behind her, perhaps emphasising that her Jamaican roots are very much a part of who she is. 
    • A detailed, Gestural Painting or drawing using sweeping, energetic movements. pattern of bright yellow marks and lines suggest the sparkle of her gold boots. 
    • Ojih Odutola’s closely observed and detailed treatment of Smith’s clothes creates an overall sense of energy and dynamism, which contrasts with the flatter, more graphic style and softer surfaces of the background.
    • Odutola has chosen to draw a full-length portrait of Smith. This allows her to use Smith’s Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits to have their portrait made. and clothing to help show who she is. 
    • The composition is relatively simple. The background is divided into Geometric A geometric pattern or arrangement that is made up of shapes such as squares, triangles or rectangles. shapes: the floor, the wall and the map. Smith’s dynamic pose presents a striking contrast with these simple shapes. 
    • Smith’s figure does not fill the composition. The background elements reflecting her Cultural identity The way groups or individuals define themselves or others, in terms of ethnicity, nationality, language, religion, gender or other characteristics. take up a similar amount of Space The area around, above and within an object. It includes positive space (the main areas of interest in a portrait – the ‘subjects’) and negative space (the area around the subjects). as Smith herself. This is perhaps to emphasise the role her cultural identity plays in her story. 
    • Ojih Odutola has created a sense of space within the portrait through the perspective The arrangement of people or objects in a painting or photograph. of the floor tiles and Smith’s positioning within the room. 
    • Smith is comfortable within the space and ‘owning it’. The space also seems to make room for us, the viewer. We are invited to be part of the space and to join in the conversation.
The world does not deliver meaning to you. You have to make it meaningful … and decide what you want and need and must do.
Zadie Smith, 2005

Who is Zadie Smith?

  • Zadie Smith is a writer of prize-winning novels, short stories and essays.
  • She was born Sadie Smith and grew up in northwest London.  
  • Her mother was born in Jamaica. She came to study and work in the UK, where she met Smith’s father. Smith’s brother remembers their father as ‘intensely proud of having mixed-race children at a time when it was certainly not fashionable’. 
  • Smith studied English at the University of Cambridge. She wrote her first novel White Teeth while still a student.
  • Before White Teeth was even finished, publishers were bidding against each other to win the rights to it. Published in 2000 to great acclaim, the novel was also adapted for television. 
  • Smith went on to publish several successful novels, addressing themes such as history, Cultural identity The way groups or individuals define themselves or others, in terms of ethnicity, nationality, language, religion, gender or other characteristics. , faith, Race Any one of the groups that humans can be divided into based on physical differences regarded as common among people of shared ancestry. and Gender Identifying as male or female, especially with reference to social and cultural differences, rather than differences in biology. .
  • She has also published short stories on similar themes and two collections of essays focussing on politics and Culture The customs and beliefs, art, way of life, and social organisation of a particular country or group. , as well as reflecting on her own life. 

Who is Toyin Ojih Odutola?

  • Toyin Ojih Odutola (born 1985) is an artist and writer.
  • She was born in Nigeria, to Nigerian parents, and grew up in the USA.
  • She is particularly known for her detailed Mixed media Artworks made from a combination of different materials or artistic media such as pen, ink or chalk. drawings, which emphasise the physical features of the skin and the stories that these can tell about a person.
  • Smith has described Ojih Odutola as the ‘central light in a thrilling new generation of Black artists.’  

Why is this portrait significant?

  • Toyin Ojih Odutola was Commission A formal request made to an artist to create an artwork. by the Gallery to make this portrait of Zadie Smith.
  • The portrait conveys the mutual admiration between the artist and Sitter The person in a portrait. – they are both fans of each other and each other’s work.
  • Ojih Odutola has said ‘[I wanted] 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.’
  • Smith has said of Ojih Odutola ‘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 The history, traditions, buildings and objects that a country or society has had for many years and that are considered an important part of its character. – and ready to make something new.’
  • Ojih Odutola chose the title ‘Sadie’ to reflect the foundations of Smith’s life: that she was born in northwest London and has firm roots in Jamaica and England.  

Questions

  1. What three words would you use to describe Zadie Smith in this portrait?
  1. What might you include in a portrait of yourself to reflect your cultural identity or background?
  1. Can you think of an artist – from today or the past – who you would choose to make a portrait of you? Why would you choose them?