Imagining a Different History for Africa Through Art

Toyin Ojih Odutola conjures a world that might have been

The Marchioness
The Marchioness (2016) depicts a member of the fictional UmuEze Amara family, "one of the oldest noble clans in Nigeria." © Toyin Ojih Odutola

Acclaimed for her life-size pastel and charcoal portraits, Toyin Ojih Odutola now offers up a world so rich the writer Zadie Smith has compared it to a “novel of high society written by an African Edith Wharton.” The pictures appear in The UmuEze Amara Clan and the House of Obafemi, a new book tracing the imagined history of two fictional noble families in a Nigeria very different from the country where the 35-year-old artist was born. In her alternative history, the economic and social devastation wrought by the trans-Atlantic slave trade and European colonialism never occurred, and neither did Nigeria’s persecution of homosexuality. Instead, Ojih Odutola’s aristocratic families, joined by the marriage of two sons, take their wealth and status for granted. She hopes to inspire people who view these pictures to imagine a better future. “The speculative can be a bridge,” says the artist, who lives in New York City, “and the process of creating it an emancipatory act.”

Imagining a Different History for Africa Through Art
First Impressions (2017) © Toyin Ojih Odutola
Imagining a Different History for Africa Through Art
Orlando (2018) © Toyin Ojih Odutola
Imagining a Different History for Africa Through Art
Surveying the Family Seat (2017) © Toyin Ojih Odutola

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This article is a selection from the September issue of Smithsonian magazine