Edited by Rianna Walcott
Art by Fatima Seck
Contemporary anthropology is seldom malicious. Today’s anthropologists go to great lengths to remove themselves from the insidious origins of the discipline — no longer is anthropology a way to mock and ogle a ‘savage’ other. Indeed, anthropology has evolved to allow an extremely empathetic — maybe even beautiful — relationship between ethnographer and ethnographic subject to be the centre of its praxis.
To assume however that this empathy reaches the student is perhaps the most myopic practice of today’s anthropology. Ethnographic research inevitably travels across an academic landscape of anthropologists, notebooks, academic journals, lecturers and students. In this process, studied cultures become commodified, and even further, there is a tendency to uncritically assume the absence of the anthropologist’s voice. People who are empathetic subjects to the ethnographer become canonised objects to the student — teaching anthropology thus becomes a process of objectification.
Introducing Toyin Odutola’s work to fundamental social anthropology courses would not so much intervene in this process as much as it would allow students to observe and consider its alternative. With largely monochromatic portraits and drawings Odutola uses black as a visual language, interrogating ‘blackness’ as both a colour palette and as an identity and lived experience. What is particularly poignant about her artistic investigation is Odutola’s centring of self; specifically, the parallels between her own introspections about her black identity, and the larger depicted examination of what it means to be ‘black,’ a theme particularly visible in her series My Country Has No Name. This is rare a thing in anthropology: continuity between who studies and who is studied. Odutola’s work as a self-interrogation breaks down the wall between ethnographer and ethnographic subject — a deconstruction whose merit I’d like to highlight here.
Though tangible and conspicuous, the voice of the anthropologist is ultimately irrelevant in anthropological study. In tutorial discussions, we don’t consider the ethnographer’s narrated blunders, meanderings and confusions; nor do we consider what this can tell us about his or her inherent bias or misunderstandings. Voice in studying and teaching anthropology becomes… a nuisance. But in Odutola’s art work, voice is entirely re-imagined. Rather than being a tangent to the subject at hand, here voice is an equally informative dimension. The visual language of black marker, black charcoal and black skin bears equal conceptual weight to the larger paradigms and ideologies Odutola engages in work. This is the strength of self-study, particularly when performed by an artist: created evidence becomes panoptic academic material.
What I also appreciate about Odutola is the profound emotional resonance of her art. She is not afraid of the sentience of her illustrations — and the viewer feels and understands it. Odutola’s work thus forces students to engage with the emotion and sentiment of human experience that is lost through the process of writing and teaching ethnography. Her self-representation accommodates an agency and dynamism that the anthropological works students typically engage with so often lack.
The strength of Odutola’s work extends even beyond the intimacy of self and studied. Perhaps the greatest success of Odutola’s art lies in the critical interrogation of the limits of the cognisance of herself and her viewers. Anthropology often assumes the totality of the ethnographer’s awareness… To students, this presumed omniscience canonises ‘othered’ groups in terms of the anthropologist. But to Odutola, the questions that arise as a result of her work are included in its conceptualisation—and even further, she’s comfortable accepting that she doesn’t have all the answers. It’s precisely this ambiguity that adds depth and profundity to her work. In engaging with Odutola’s art, students are forced to explicitly and continually recognise the boundaries of what can be known —particularly, about ‘othered’ groups.
Of course, I recognise that studying humanity will never be a perfect practice. But I do think that teaching anthropology requires an academic paradigm shift. The strengths for which I’ve lauded Odutola here are not necessarily unique to her work; hers is simply the type of content I need in anthropology. I want to read W.E.B Du Bois when learning about race. I want Amanda Gcabashe to tell me about health and healing in sub-Saharan Africa. I want to learn about food practices in North America from Ron Finley. I want more autobiographical rather than ethnographic texts and images in studying anthropology, and in considering Odutola’s work in anthropological terms I’ve outlined the vast benefits of such an alternative. Indeed, in a fundamentals course, Odutola can be a mode of teaching an expanded anthropological theory, as well as tacitly forcing students to identify and acknowledge where and how ethnography fails.
Really, the hegemony of ethnography in anthropology passively enforces the notion that only a ‘distanced’ (usually white) anthropologist can provide academic, teachable insight into humanity, culture, the human experience and what it means to be a ‘person.’ Introducing Toyin Odutola to our first year anthropology curriculum can begin to dismantle this idea, thus expanding and enriching the study and practice of social anthropology.
Lehrer, Adam. “Artist Toyin Ojih Odutola Explores and Questions the Construct of Blackness.” Forbes 25 Feb. 2016. Print.
“Toyin Ojih Odutola.” Jack Shainman Gallery. The Magazine Works, Web. 6 June 2017.
“Toyin Oji Odutola, My Country Has No Name.” Jack Shainman Gallery. The Magazine Works, N.D. Web. 10 Jun 2017.
About the author
Fatima Seck is a rising second year student of social anthropology and fine arts at the University of Edinburgh. She’s interested in human-centred design, as well as the relationship between sociocultural identities and works of art.