Visiting the Hirshhorn exhibition “Toyin Ojih Odutola: A Countervailing Theory” is an intense, multisensory and even otherworldly experience — and, unlike some other art, in this case it helps to know more, rather than less, about it beforehand.

In the show, which fills the second floor’s entire inner ring, the Nigerian American artist tells the story of an ancient African society built on an oppressive system of gender and class, and the transgressive love story that brings about its rupture. The parable is told through 40 large-scale illustrations that are entirely in black, white and shades of gray, drawn by Ojih Odutola with pastel, chalk and charcoal on a black background.

Accompanying these visual works is an evocative soundscape, “Ceremonies Within,” by Ghanian British composer and sound artist Peter Adjaye (whose brother and frequent collaborator, architect David Adjaye, designed the National Museum of African American History and Culture).

Ojih Odutola, who was born in Nigeria in 1985 and came with her family to the United States at age 5, has become known in recent years for her speculative narratives and what she calls “world-building,” featuring beautifully rendered portraits of Black figures. “A Countervailing Theory,” which was commissioned and first shown at the Barbican arts and cultural center in London, followed by a stop in Denmark before making its way to the Hirshhorn, builds on that previous output.

This is the artist’s debut in a Washington museum, with the exception of a portrait of her brother, drawn in ballpoint pen, that is on display at the National Museum of African Art in the exhibition “I Am . . . Contemporary Women Artists of Africa.”

“A Countervailing Theory” is premised on an intriguing — and entirely fictional — conceit, explained in a note at the end: that Ojih Odutola is an archaeologist who was hired to interpret etched sheets of shale rock uncovered in a Chinese mining operation in central Nigeria’s Jos Plateau region and dating from at least four millennia ago. The panels shown here are scans of the “pictorial markings” left by this previously unknown civilization, she says.

The society consists of a ruling lineage of Amazon-like women warriors called the Eshu and a class of “humanoid men” called the Koba, who exist only to serve the needs of the Eshu through mining and food production. All relationships between the classes — and thus also heterosexual relationships — are forbidden. But an Eshu named Akanke and a Koba named Aldo (each of whom already has a partner from their own social class) manage to transcend these strictures and form a bond, leading to the system’s eventual demise. (The story is explained very briefly in the wall text, but it’s useful to read the artist’s longer synopsis in the exhibit catalogue; it is also available on the museum’s website.)

One drawing, “To the Next Outpost,” captures the two groups’ power differential most clearly: Akanke stands imperiously surveying the distant landscape, a staff in her hand, her back to Aldo, who grimaces as he strains his naked body to pull a heavy load of stone with a rope.

The show takes its name from the political and economic theory of countervailance: the idea that power can be wielded to counter the effect of an opposing force. It can easily be read as an allegory for oppressive systems such as colonialism and slavery. But what began as Ojih Odutola’s attempt to flip the script on hierarchies of race, gender, class and sexuality conveys a much more transformative message: Oppression can be eradicated only by dismantling the entire system, not merely by changing who is in power, the artist seems to say.

Even leaving aside these more theoretical underpinnings, the works are visually compelling, brimming with rich textures and fantastical landscapes. In “To Be Chosen and Not Known,” the muscled, glistening bodies of Akanke and her same-sex partner, Konye, form a sharp contrast with the background of bulbous plants and elaborate rock formations outlined in white against a black sky.

The drawings also convey deep emotional resonance, particularly in several sensitive portraits of pairs of lovers or siblings, such as “Farewells,” in which Aldo says goodbye to his partner, Traek, the two men tenderly putting their heads together.

Adjaye’s immersive sound composition follows the dramatic tension of the narrative, each of the three sections setting a different mood. It incorporates a panoply of West African instruments (including talking drums, thumb piano, flutes, gongs and harps), as well as more naturalistic sounds that evoke rattles, slithering snakes, rustling reeds, wind and water. The circular gallery is dimly illuminated, its windows draped with black shades, which not only prevents glare on the largely dark panels but also heightens the effect of the audio.

The dark setting, Adjaye’s transporting soundscape and Ojih Odutola’s striking images and narrative combine to create a visceral, almost whole-body experience, transforming the space into a sort of primordial tunnel, from which it seems impossible to emerge at the other end unchanged.

If you go

Toyin Ojih Odutola: A Countervailing Theory

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW. hirshhorn.si.edu.

Dates: Through April 3.

Admission: Free.