A Portrait of the Artist as a Young African Immigrant

EARLY LAST YEAR I was sent a copy of Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel. A multigenerational epic, tracing half sisters separated by the trans-Atlantic slave trade, “Homegoing” recalls the work of Eleanor Catton and Garth Risk Hallberg in its virtuosity. Months later I discovered the artist Toyin Ojih Odutola. Procrastinating on Instagram, as one does, I stumbled upon “Untitled (Dotun. Enugu, Nigeria).” The work, made in 2012, features the artist’s signature style: a face rendered in feathery marks, black and white, ballpoint pen on paper. The haunting image seemed to have been created at once in a hurry and with meticulous care: a close-up of a face (her brother’s, I’d learn) that radiated might and melancholy.

That these consummate artists were both West African thrilled me to no end. I am a Nigerian-Ghanaian who pursued an unlikely creative career; here were two comrades at the top of their creative fields. The Ghanaian-born Gyasi sold her debut for a reported seven figures when she was 25. At 31, the Nigerian-born Ojih Odutola, whose work is in the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, has had numerous solo gallery shows. Even without finding their surnames familiar, I’d have marveled at their accomplishments — and was astounded to learn that they not only knew each other, but had both lived in Huntsville, Ala. How was it, I wondered, that two celebrated young artists came from this one Southern town? And what did it say that these poignant observers of race in America weren’t American-born at all?

 

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