For the New York Times, Taiye Selasi profiles novelist Yaa Gyasi and visual artist Toyin Ojih Odutola, both African-born, Alabama-raised creatives who’ve won critical acclaim for incisive work that probes deeply into the meaning of race in America.
“Drawing was always my thing,” Ojih Odutola says. “I always signed up for competitions. I won a lot of first-place prizes, but I was very traditional in my renderings.” Her parents lauded her gift but viewed art as a hobby. It was Dana Bathurst, a high school art teacher, who challenged their assumptions: that good art must approximate European traditions and that pursuing a career in art wasn’t possible. Bathurst introduced Ojih Odutola to a new conception of portraiture through the work of African-American artists like Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden and fellow Alabamian Kerry James Marshall. Gyasi, similarly, excelled at writing from an early age but couldn’t imagine a literary career before AP English. That year, the only black English teacher she would ever have, Janice Vaughn, took her writing seriously. Then, in her senior year, Gyasi discovered Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon.” The language was spectacular; the author a brown woman; the sensibility familiar, Southern.