How To Look at a Portrait

© Copyright 2021 Ashleigh Brown, Ryerson University.

On June 6, 2020, Oluwatoyin Salau sent out a tweet informing her followers that she had been attacked by a man who had offered her a ride. A week later, the 20-year-old was found dead.

As the news of Toyin’s passing spread, vigils were held, articles were written, and drawings were crafted in her honour. I remember refreshing my timeline and watching as the artistic homages flood Twitter and each portrait became more ornate. In a mere matter of hours, Toyin had gone from an activist to the face of the Say Her Name movement. Her assaulter had robbed Toyin of her life and social media had robbed Toyin of her humanity postmortem. Due to the weight that her murder held given the heightening of racial tensions and protests at the time, Toyin was not laid to rest as a normal citizen. Her likeness was repurposed and distributed for a purpose that is much larger than her. Following her passing, Toyin has become an icon of Black Female fragility and a cautionary tale of what happens when we allow marginalized voices to go unheard. The Say Her Name movement is one that is absolutely necessary but had Toyin’s cries for help been met with the same amount of painstaking detail present in this portrait, there would be no need to mourn.

[Fig 1.1:Akil, Osaze, Toyin. 16 June 2020. Image]
Toyin is dressed in a white blouse that features a dainty bow which ties at her neck. The colour contrasts beautifully against her skin which is adorned with a prominent highlight on her high cheekbones and a metallic gold eyeliner. The reflective qualities in her makeup make Toyin look regal. It is almost as if the sun is crowing only the apples of her cheeks, eyelids, and the bridge of her nose. Toyin is also wearing a sage green robe which is reminiscent of a Saint’s. Her wardrobe exudes the air of a divine being, immortalizing her legacy as a martyr. Her likeness is framed by flowers and ornate architecture that would rival any cathedral.  Finally, a golden speckled ring surrounds her head in a way that forces the viewer to drink in every aspect of her glory and triumph.

The celestial elegance captured in this portrait is hauntingly beautiful. Toyin is depicted in lush gardens and decadent dreamscapes in an attempt to rectify what could not be offered to her on this plane of existence. For her voice to matter, Toyin’s blood had to be shed. The picture almost feels self-indulgent, as we get to stare in awe at Toyin in a state of divinity that she will never get to experience.

There is no doubt that Akil created a beautiful rendition of Toyin’s likeness. The choice in the colour palette, foreground, and background were all intentional in creating a portrait fit for royalty. Unfortunately, the irony is found in every paint stroke left behind. This is not a sight unseen for black women who have been brutally murdered. Breonna Taylor’s image was also repurposed and bastardized until she eventually became a meme.

[FIg 1.2: SpeakToMeTees, Breonna Taylor Shirt. 2020. Image.]
There is a fine line between campaigning for awareness of the injustices that black people face and exploiting these injustices to turn a profit. Black lives have always doubled as commodities but in the twentieth century redux, this is pacified under the guise of “activism.” With the iconography of women like Breonna and Toyin becoming common practice, I wonder if this will eventually be the fate of my mother, sister, or even myself if we are to meet an untimely death. Akil’s portrait speaks to the call for black women and their struggles to be heard while simultaneously attempting to put a crown atop a cold body. It is a bittersweet sight and to this day, I feel as though I cannot look into Toyin’s eyes without feeling compelled to look away.

Rest in power to Oluwatoyin Salau.

Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.

Works Cited

Akil, Osaze, Toyin. 16 June 2020. Image.

SpeakToMeTees, Breonna Taylor Shirt. 2020. Image.