Artist Toyin Ojih Odutola describes her portrait of Zadie Smith as an homage to the writer and a “love letter to Black Britain.”
The new commission, titled “Sadie,” was revealed Monday by London’s National Portrait Gallery and marks the first work by Ojih Odutola to enter the museum’s collection. The portrait will go on display in the Brent Museum in December 2020.
“When I got the letter that I was to create a commission portrait of Zadie, I cried,” Ojih Odutola told art historian Kay Hessel in an interview accompanying the piece online. “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.”
The admiration was reciprocated. In her exchange with Hessel, Smith describes being struck by Ojih Odutola’s work at the Whitney Museum of American Art and her portrait of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, which the “White Teeth” author described as conveying a sense of an “equality of gaze between subject and artist.” This feeling, Smith explained, carried over to Ojih Odutola’s “Sadie,” which she said captured an “artist looking at a writer looking back.”
“I feel so proud of Toyin, first and foremost,” Smith said in the interview. “I know her art will have a tremendous effect on young people because I’m a grown-ass woman and it’s had a tremendous effect on me. Becoming familiar with her images is like having something I missed and wanted in childhood delivered to me now, as an adult. And to be a Toyin creation myself, on the walls of the Portrait Gallery? It’s incredible. I still can’t quite believe it.”
To create the life-size portrait, Ojih Odutola worked from a photograph of Smith, snapped on her iPhone while the two listened to Solange. In the initial image, Smith was wearing a headwrap, but later sent a photo of the afro she was growing out at the time for the artist to include in the final piece — marking (to the “delight” of Smith) the first time the hairstyle on a portrait of a woman would be included in the Gallery.
“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,” Ojih Odutola told Hessel. “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.’”
Captured in fine detail, the portrait depicts a red-caped Smith sitting, backdropped by a map of North West London (where she grew up) and a bright blue wall marked by the shadows of palm leaves — a reference to the writer’s Jamaican heritage on her mother’s side of the family. Though this setting — multi-layered in its address to Smith and its call to Black Britain more — is drawn from the artist’s mind, Ojih Odutola explained that it “doesn’t make it any less of an authentic place.”
As for Smith, she said that the “portrait makes me feel as if I belong somewhere, and also reminds me that a sense of belonging is as much a choice and a decision as it is a matter of contingency.”
Smith’s portrait joins three other photographic captures of the writer held in the collection, with the oldest dating back to 1999 and the most recent to 2002.
“We are delighted to have commissioned this beautiful and monumental new portrait of one of the greatest literary voices of our time by one of the most innovative and exciting artists working today,” National Portrait Gallery Director Nicholas Cullinan said in a statement. “It also represents another significant step (among many more that are needed and planned over the next few years) in our ongoing commitment to increase both the representation of women and Black sitters and artists within our collection.”
Though the Gallery remains closed for the next three years, as plans for redevelopment continue, “Sadie” can be seen online, alongside Hessel’s full interview with the artists, before it is put on display in Brent. The portrait will make its way to the Gallery once it reopens in 2023.
Top Image: Detail of 'Sadie' (Zadie Smith) by Toyin Ojih Odutola, 2018-19. Pastel, charcoal, pencil and graphite on paper © Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.