THE MUTUAL ADMIRATION between storytellers Zadie Smith and Toyin Ojih Odutola is palpable. The British novelist has written about the Nigerian-born visual artist’s work for British Vogue and contributed an essay to her forthcoming catalog, “Toyin Ojih Odutola: A Countervailing Theory,” which will accompany a show at the Barbican Centre in London, the artist’s first-ever UK exhibition.

In December 2018, the two engaged in a conversation at the Drawing Center in New York during “For Opacity: Elijah Burgher, Toyin Ojih Odutola, and Nathaniel Mary Quinn,” a group exhibition featuring the artist’s drawings. At one point, Smith said Ojih Odutola was “talking like a novelist” about her art.


TOYIN OJIH ODUTOLA, “Sadie” (Zadie Smith),” 2018-2019 (pastel, charcoal, pencil and graphite on paper). | © Toyin Ojih Odutola


Their latest collaboration is a painting. The National Portrait Gallery in London commissioned Ojih Odutola to create a portrait of Smith. A vital literary voice and one of the great novelists of her generation, the UK museum already had three photographs of Smith in its collection and wanted to immortalize her with a painting.

London-born Smith is the author of several award-winning novels and short story collections, including her debut bestseller “White Teeth,” “Swing Time,” and “On Beauty,” which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. “Grand Union: Stories” was published last year. “Intimations: Six Essays” is forthcoming later this month. A professor of fiction at New York University, Smith has written about the work of a few artists—photographer Deana Lawson, and painters Henry Taylor and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, in addition to Ojih Odutola.

The National Portrait Gallery revealed the portrait of Smith this week. Ojih Odutola depicts her seated casually wearing a long red jacket draped around her shoulders. One of her legs is crossed with her low-heeled, animal print ankle boot resting on her knee. Effortlessly stylish.

Smith is situated in the space of three planes that reflect her identity—the floor where her shadow is cast; a large framed map hanging behind her that depicts Kilburn, the London neighborhood where she grew up; and the wall on which it is displayed, where silhouetted foliage pays homage to her Jamaican roots.

The museum published insights from both parties. Smith and Ojih-Odutola spoke about the portrait with Katy Hessel, an art historian and founder of The Great Women Artists, an Instagram account and podcast. The artist said the painting was a “love letter to Black Britain.”

Each expressed deeply felt reactions to the other’s work. Smith recalled paying multiple visits to “Toyin Ojih Odutola: To Wander Determined.” The exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art was the artist’s first solo museum show in New York.

The author said “each time it was like walking into a novel.” In the interview, she talked further about how Ojih Odutola’s work makes her feel:

    ZADIE SMITH: 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.”

“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.” — Zadie Smith


Toyin Ojih Odutola. | Photo by Beth Wilkinson


Ojih Odutola told Hessel, “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.” That early response to Smith’s work made the prospect of creating a portrait of her an emotional and profound opportunity:

    TOYIN OJIH ODUTOLA: 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.

The artist titled the portrait “Sadie,” the author’s given name before she changed it to Zadie as a teenager. The painting will go on view near Smith’s hometown at the Brent Museum and Archives in December, part of Brent 2020: London Borough of Culture, a yearlong celebration of cultural programming.

Currently undergoing major redevelopment, the National Portrait Gallery is closed until 2023. When it reopens, “Sadie” will be displayed in the museum’s newly transformed gallery space. CT


Zadie Smith has authored many novels and essay collections and contributed to art publications, including “Deana Lawson: An Aperture Monograph” and “Henry Taylor,” the artist’s first major monograph. “A Matter of Fact: Toyin Ojih Odutola” was published to accompany a solo exhibition at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. It is the first exhibition catalog dedicated to the Toyin Ojih Odutola’s work. A catalog was published to accompany “For Opacity: Elijah Burgher, Toyin Ojih Odutola, and Nathaniel Mary Quinn” (available in digital and print, from the Center). “Toyin Ojih Odutola: A Countervailing Theory” will be published to coincide with the artist’s forthcoming exhibition at the Barbican Centre in London. The volume includes an essay by Smith and an interview with the Ojih Odutola conducted by exhibition curator Lotte Johnson.


Do you enjoy and value Culture Type? Please consider supporting its ongoing production by making a donation. Culture Type is an independent editorial project that requires countless hours and expense to research, report, write, and produce. To help sustain it, make a one-time donation or sign up for a recurring monthly contribution. It only takes a minute. Many Thanks for Your Support.