A Sonic resonance rounds the bend
COMING AROUND THE BEND
Upon entering The Curve, I can’t see what’s around the bend – but I can hear it.
This unique site at The Barbican – a long, sinuous path with one way in, one way out – is home to the first-ever UK exhibition by Nigerian-American artist Toyin Ojih Odutola. Known for her distinct mark-making techniques rendering topographical depictions of skin and narrative landscapes, Ojih Odutola has created a mythical, monochromatic world of pastel and charcoal. Her new radical social imaginary, ‘A Countervailing Theory’, challenges audiences not only to read a story, but also to read rhythm. Within this immersive exhibition, one questions: what does storytelling sound like? What is its narrative pace, its pulsing heartbeat?
Toyin Ojih Odutola. Installation views from ‘A Countervailing Theory’, 2020. © Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist, Barbican Centre and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
Conceptual sound artist Peter Adjaye brings these questions to nuanced life in his special collaboration with Ojih Odutola to create a soundscape activate her installation of 40 new works with a 12-channel soundscape Ceremonies Within combining ancient African instrumentation with modern contemporary synths and strings.
And that is why I can hear the exhibition before I even step inside it and look around the bend. Upon entering The Curve, you descend down the stairs as your peripheral vision transitions monochromatically from white to black due to the elegant yet wholly innovative ombre effect on the walls, reminiscent of the colour scale one learns upon honing their early painterly vocabulary. As you go lower and lower the sound draws you in – draws you deep into the darkness which reverses back to lightness, as if underwater, or inside a womb. You are immersed. You are at the site of creation.
A COUNTERVAILING HISTORY
The origin story we find ourselves walking deep into is a counterbalance across planes and platitudes – a world of flips and slippages, of dissonance suggesting new forms and possibilities of harmony.
Ojih Odutola weaves us through a historical re-writing whereby skin becomes landscape, nature becomes architecture, and a drawn mythical world gently detonates into an immersive soundscape.
Ojih Odutola weaves us through a historical re-writing whereby the skin becomes landscape, nature becomes architecture, and a drawn mythical world gently detonates into an immersive soundscape. You are welcome to read this history through a sweeping series of salon-style works scattered at different heights that lead you through a paradoxically non-linear episodic journey. ‘It’s the journeys of direction’, Adjaye muses upon creating the three-movement sound installation to pair with this new epic body of work. ‘The journey through these landscapes are the possible stories that are happening – dramas, characters getting to know the unknown – but not actually in a strict particular order. Everything overlaps.’
In a gesture of subversive fictional agency, we are introduced to the artist as an archaeologist: Director of the Jos Plateau Research Initiative currently studying black shale rock deposits giving voice to an otherwordly humanoid race from a time gone by. This hybrid textural landscape of rock and water was home to a rigid social economy: the story within a story of the Eshu (a ruling class of women warriors who oversee mining production) and the Koba (men who serve them). Like any good old fashioned power play, the dynamics of the hierarchy are rife with seemingly inexorable indoctrination: the oppressors are trained to think they are a force of good; the slaves are trained only to function, to fear. The crux of this world – the counterbalance, the flip – is that these two groups are forbidden to engage in physical or emotional relationships. All connections are restricted to those in the same class and gender.
In walk female warrior Akanke and subservient male Aldo: mythical predecessors to Laila and Majnu, Romeo and Juliet, yet like we’ve never seen them before. The script and casting have been flipped. Here we have a darker, more ancient pair. Yet more dangerous than their forbidden love-making, is their listening: the radical act of listening. Akanke listens to Aldo’s struggle and his psychological awakening – a gesture to make visible, make heard, make change. Through winding episodic events there is love, betrayal, injustice, and hope in the plot that follow their fates. Yet the undying tempo and trace of listening resonate powerfully throughout.
Toyin Ojih Odutola, Semblance of Certainty from ‘A Countervailing Theory’, 2020. © Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
RHYTHM IN THE ECONOMY OF PLOT
In the catalogue interview with curator Lotte Johnson and Ojih Odutola, we discover the artists’ interest in the story-telling styles of comic book and graphic novels, as she shares: ‘There’s a brilliant rhythm in the economy of plot: every panel or scene has a specific purpose to the larger story, though it may not seem so initially. A panel of a grasshopper on a leaf, or a scene of an empty house interior – that’s a world. You get lost within it, and it gives you pause as the story sets in. I’m interested in incorporating that in creating a rhythm and pace that is activated.’ And thus whilst Ojih Odutola was in the midst of bringing this world to life through line and shadow, she reached out to Peter Adjaye to ground her formation of the speculative through sound.
the soundscape empowers you to enter this mind map of radical imagery/imaginary, where a fantasy topography of skin within geographical landscape transitions into an architectural reality of physical bodies within concrete walls.
Adjaye’s soundscape hence developed over several months whilst in close contact with the artist across the pond – him in London, Ojih Odutola in New York – their West African heritage, interest in nonlinear storytelling, and desire to create alternative, immersive realities transcending their distance. In the way that the artworks enable you to challenge conceptions of history, excavation, discovery, and truth, the soundscape empowers you to enter this mind map of radical imagery/imaginary, where a fantasy topography of skin within geographical landscape transitions into an architectural reality of physical bodies within concrete walls. The unpredictable, emotive, and enigmatic sound installation bleeds over the concrete, interacts with the paintings as if they were sound baffles, echoes throughout the curve, and overlaps in time, space, and your eardrum. Whilst the exhibition unfolds in one direction due to COVID-19 restrictions, the story still has no concrete beginning or end. Everything is cyclical, endless, and you’ll never have the same experience twice. In a true testament to call and response as a principle of jazz, there is collaboration, freedom, and openness – an enduring call for unending personal interpretations, readings, and responses.
Furthermore, Ceremonies Within poignantly re-activates the frequent silencing of oral history, including the, lived, oral Yoruba linguistic history of Ojih Odutola’s father’s family – diluted and erased due to missionaries’ translations abiding by the rhetorical rules of a greater written colonial narrative. Adjaye’s sensory layer allow for unseen histories to be heard by giving them what he calls a ‘clear definition of rhythm.’ His poetic soundscape thus communicates like a score: you can read the note, the rhythm, the polyrhythm, the story within a story. ‘It creates many different spaces in between,’ he reflects, ‘where you can find your own space within a space. The crossing of the sounds and rhythms allow you to have your own interpretation. You forget: is it a day, is it a night, what time is it? You’re gone. Sound always asks us to stop and listen more, to pay attention more, to quieten down and pick up the nuances of the space – whether it be the noises or the silences. It allows you to feel.’
The cover artwork of Peter Adjayes’ Ceremonies Within.
MUSIC FOR ARCHITECTURE
Halfway through my journey into The Curve, Adjaye joins me. It’s perfect timing. Despite us, both wearing masks, the mutual eyebrow raise and mirrored laughter lines emerge recognition. An energy transfer. This exhibition is an advocate for intimacy, so our reunion effortlessly transitions into secret sharing. I show Adjaye a particular work, A Parting Gift: Hers and Hers, Only, where Akanke and her female partner Konye passionately embrace. At the moment I had encountered this work, the looping 20-minute Ceremonies Within happened to hit a particular cinematic orchestral expression. Magic. We continue to stand and whisper at the central heart of the exhibition, which I’m convinced deep in my bones has the most dynamic sound texture and emotional impact. I learn this is no coincidence, as Adjaye shares his world of frequency, sound, sight, and science with me. How sounds absorb, reflect, and disperse across The Curve – how they’re bent into intimacy.
…Adjaye considers how sound can make you feel – how sounds can make a space inviting, and how you can, in turn, interact and reverberate with the sounds in space.
Ojih Odutola’s invitation to Adjaye is a welcome and knowing collaboration for all familiar with his conceptual sound art practice. As a musicologist, composer, DJ-producer, and musician with an academic background in engineering and mathematics, Adjaye often challenges the cross-modality of space and sound in adventurous and experimental ways. He and his brother, acclaimed architect David Adjaye, have worked together within their company Music for Architecture on numerous projects within this scope. For example their first collaboration in 2003 of the soundscape ‘Echoes’ for Asymmetric Chamber, the 2016 publication of Dialogues on Music for Architecture Records in association with Vinyl Factory Records, and compositions by Peter responding to the David Adjaye: Making Memory retrospective at the Design Museum last year, amongst others. In all of these projects, Adjaye considers how sound can make you feel – how sounds can make a space inviting, and how you can, in turn, interact and reverberate with the sounds in space.
Adjaye’s site- and project-specific Ceremonies Within includes a cacophonous culmination of his practice: percussion, emotive classical strings, electronic synthesiser, natural elements including wind and water, and West African instruments such as ogene (double bells), okpola (a woodblock), and igba (a cylinder drum) – the heartbeat. These layers are engineered to be constantly moving, and hence, they move you: ‘Layering and blending are exactly how I feel about the sound. I’m into bleeding – it’s about frequencies, and where sound will travel. I knew where to put my bass frequency because it would travel the longest distance – so it’s on the floor and the furthest away from the wall. Whereas the treble speakers are hanging from the ceiling and in the middle. It creates depth, a 3D way of enveloping and filling the space. It’s constantly moving, never static. There’s a whole movement and thing going on in each speaker. In each speaker lives a whole suite.’
The three-part soundscape also exists as a limited edition vinyl with one side functioning as an immersive gallery mix, the other separated into tracks – continuing the story as its own physical entity, transcending time and space. Inside, we discover a new landscape through natural sounds; encounter a new culture through layers of percussion and West African instrumentation, and meditate upon a new future through synthesised orchestration – the percussion still lingering, echoing. Outside, the cover features Ojih Odutola’s Summons; To Witness One’s Own, a compositionally astounding cluster of Aldo men. ‘When I first saw it’, Adjaye reflects, ‘I thought: I can see myself in there. Every face is completely different – like a different real person, with their own emotion, and expression, and so powerful. You can pick one of them and just spend ages with that person. And recently, I started thinking about slave dungeons, how they were all packed together, and the feeling they would have of being dispossessed. They’re all in trauma together but are given such individuality and respect. Ceremonies Within thus references the gathering of peoples with a common cause.’ Sight and sound-alike continue to unpack history, break it down, conjure transatlantic tales, and protest to be heard.
Toyin Ojih Odutola, Establishing The Plot from ‘A Countervailing Theory’, 2020. © Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
Experiencing this deeply layered exhibition – full of Ojih Odutola’s mastery for physical and psychological light penetrating through deep dark lines, activated by Adjaye’s soundscape and our conversation – comes at an especially timely moment considering my own current curatorial research. Throughout lockdown, my work has centred around the cross-pollination of sound and art: the topic of The Showroom, London’s first online exhibition ‘IN·FLO·RES·CENCE’, in collaboration with Filmmaker Producer Reece Ewing. This platform creates an interdisciplinary platform for audiences to encounter music compositions and interdisciplinary conversations in response to 10 composers from around the globe invited to create a piece for solo piano around 1 minute in length responding to the changes to daily life during the global coronavirus outbreak.
‘A Countervailing Theory’ richly fits within a greater interdisciplinary legacy of the activation of sound in art spaces, from domestic interventions by the avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor’s early free jazz loft collaborations from the 1950s, to jazz pianist Jason Moran’s music object exhibitions including his show at the Whitney earlier this year. Considering how deeply Adjaye’s practice resonates with the ethos of ‘IN·FLO·RES·CENCE’, we’ve invited him to respond to the platform with an interactive listening session and talk, where we’ll have the chance to listen to his vast collection of vinyl records including the music of the African diaspora, highlighting contemporary afro-inspired fusions and jazz. Immersive listening will be punctuated by discussions around Peter’s sound art practice grounded in ideas of protest and ceremony. ‘I’m fascinated with this idea of coming together, of the ritual of practice’, Adjaye elaborates. ‘When we come together in acts of ceremony throughout the stages of our lives, how does that commemorate, emphasise, and resonate meaning? We’re talking about coming together. We’re talking about protests. Protest is a ceremony – coming together in a shared act of the same reasoning.’
This exhibition at The Barbican, originally due to open on 26th March 2020, couldn’t feel like a more timely, generous installation. It truly exemplifies the physical notion of resonance: when two frequencies – art and sound – match and grow bigger: they sing, they breed. There’s an eclipse and almost unbearable emotional transcendence: endless layering, listening, and discovery.
It is clear that this collaboration was born out of trust. Reflecting on the commission in her catalogue interview, Ojih Odutola expresses that ‘Peter has such a considered way of composing his soundscapes. He isn’t afraid of contradicting elements and he brilliantly layers sounds from multiple sources. The dialogue this creates between our works adds to the otherworldly effect. The feeling of otherness permeates the space – and purposefully so. I think some might get caught up in otherness as something abrasive, scary, even strange because it’s unknown and it makes people uncertain; but I come from a place where otherness is welcoming. It’s inclusive. Otherness helps us see the margins, it expands the possibilities of our world and helps us move through it.’
And indeed, ‘A Countervailing Theory’ channels what otherness not only looks like, but also sounds like – what it feels like. This queering of the other encourages new ways of seeing difference and love, creating new languages and possibilities. For, in the end, this story is a poem of epic love. The love is radical, it is a protest, deeply embedded in the escalation of the current conditions of our times: a pandemic; the fight for anti-racism, gender equality, and environmental sustainability; a reassessment of capitalist systems of value and power. Ojih Odutola and Adjaye’s fictional yet familiar world offers and breaks down age-old hierarchies whilst creating new hybrid ones, relishing in the nuance of humanity and the endless spectrum of colours within a monochromatic society. Yet within this reversal of power, there is enduring tenderness underneath the violence.
There is hope.
There is hope in collaboration, listening, generosity, and equality. The opportunity for two distinct artists, with different voices and skill sets, to join forces, find trust in each other, and create great resonance. To listen to each other, tell new stories, and create more possibilities for us all to reimagine our future, individually and together.
Toyin Ojih Odutola: A Countervailing Theory is currently on exhibit in The Curve at The Barbican, London, from 11th August until Sunday 24th January 2021. Ceremonies Within by Peter Adjae will be released on a limited-edition vinyl-only edition on Music for Architecture records in partnership with The Vinyl Factory, on 18th September 2020. The vinyl is also available in The Barbican shop.
IN·FLO·RES·CENCE, The Showroom’s online platform where sound and art cross-pollinate, is available to experience online and across social media channels 7th August 2020.
Katherine Finerty was born in New York City and practices as an independent art curator and writer in London. She focuses on socially engaged practices, translocal identity politics, and contemporary African art. Finerty holds an MA in Curating from the Royal College of Art, studied History of Art at the University of Cambridge, and received her BA in Art History and Africana Studies from Cornell University. She was Elvira Dyangani Ose’s Curatorial Assistant for the Göteborg International Biennale for Contemporary Art 2015 and Rencontres Picha: Biennale de Lubumbashi 2013, and has interned in the curatorial departments of The Met and The Studio Museum in Harlem. Finerty is currently Assistant Curator and Communications & Development Manager at The Showroom, London.