A decade ago, mysterious drawings were uncovered on black shale sheets in Nigeria, and after studying them, life-size scans have gone on display in the Barbican. The drawings show a prehistoric civilisation dominated by female rulers and male labourers, and mandatory homosexuality.

It’s of course, art, not history, and the images are drawn by the Nigerian-American artist Toyin Ojih Odutola, on display here in the UK for the first time.

In total 40 drawings easily fill the huge Curve gallery space, with a soundtrack also commissioned for the exhibition. The drawings range from domestic sized to huge and are all in a near monochrome effect made with pastel, charcoal and chalks.

As a show, it’s a curious mix of recognisably African people in surreal, almost computer-generated landscapes. There is a narrative here, if you hunt — oppression, love, rebellion even.

The drawings are of a style that will either appeal or repel in almost equal measure. There’s little overt sexuality in the darkness, although just enough for you to stop a moment and wonder about the embraces. The evident trampling underfoot of the men in some images is a topical reversal of conventions.

Another image of a lady reclining has hands over the face in a manner that reminds you of the botched restoration of the Ecce Homo in Spain.

Throughout the monochrome images, there is one small patch of colour – the eyes, all marble balls of swirling colours. And most curiously, none of that came out in any of the photos taken in the gallery.

It’s an exhibition that’s probably not going to leave you with deep philosophical questions as the art is too otherworldly for that – the meaning, if you seek it is in the introductory and final texts. Otherwise, it’s a gallery of strangely compelling images.

The exhibition, Toyin Ojih Odutola: A Countervailing Theory is at the Barbican until 24th January 2021. Entry is free, with pre-booked tickets.


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