Published  01/02/2016

Odili Donald Odita: ‘I want to use colour to have an effect on the mind and body’

Odili Donald Odita: ‘I want to use colour to have an effect on the mind and body’

Known for his vibrant, large-scale, abstract paintings, the artist talks about his influences, from the crazy patterns of wallpaper and the African artefacts in his childhood home, to the exhibitions and artists who have shaped his work


Odili Donald Odita is an African American contemporary artist who lives in Philadelphia, and teaches at the Tyler School of Art, Temple University. Odita, who was born in Nigeria in 1966 but grew up in Ohio, works primarily in abstract, large-scale colour-field painting with an emphasis on site-specific mural-sized compositions. His output also includes sculpture and installation. His work is focused on conducting an intellectual and emotional study of the formal aspects of colour – this extends into an art historical exploration. Further, Odita’s paintings investigate the power of shape, pattern, repetition and colour to contribute to, and highlight, some of the most important sociopolitical issues of our time – the demarcation and control of public and private space, as well as gender and racial politics.

A Will Brown: When did you begin making art, and what were your early days of being an artist like?

Odili Donald Odita: I was drawing from an early age – as far back as five years old. It was about copying images, mostly from superhero comic books, and later from fashion magazines. I knew I was going to be an artist after I did a marathon copying of images from a stack of prints/drawings that my father had collected for his work as an art historian. I remember these images as being black and white abstracted imagery on white paper and framed on black matte board. The stack must have been 50 images or more. I spent the day into the evening copying them, one after the next, until I fell asleep, face down on the drawing paper.

AWB: You often speak about music, vibration and memory when discussing your work and the impetus behind your paintings. Could you expand on how you achieve the incredible emotional and experiential sense in your large paintings by drawing from music and the idea of memory intellectually?

ODO: Music as a source is inspiring on so many levels. It’s a force that connects me to the centre of the human experience. This, for me, is the emotional and the psychological, and it manifests itself in narrative, whether abstract, or linked together with words.

AWB: What you do seems so sensitive and intuitive. Intuition can be a challenge to tap into, and even to allow, or harness it, is quite uncommon. How does intuition and, more specifically, a kind of intuitive seeing, in the visual sense, play into your work?

ODO: Over the years, I have come to see how emotionally driven my work is. I like to think through my feelings to get to the centre of where my being is positioned at a given moment, or time. It is important for me to ask myself how I feel about something, and why I feel a certain way. The artist Rina Banerjee once said to me that an intellectual is someone who thinks through their feelings. This is the kind of intellectual I strive to be.

AWB: I find that colour can pierce one, open one up, or close one down – viscerally, emotionally and intellectually. How has your relationship with colour developed over time?

ODO: I have come to acknowledge and respect colour’s power as a physical force. It is physical and it is psychological. It has the force to move us from our position when it hits us in the centre of our mind. It seduces us as much as it reasons with us. Colour is felt through sight, yet the eye does not see – it’s only a tool. It’s the mind that sees. Understanding this, I want to use colour to have an effect on the mind and body together.

AWB: Shape and pattern are also key elements in your work. How do you choose certain shapes and patterns? Are you looking at particular fabrics, textiles or historic patterns to inform your work? Alexander Girard comes to mind, but not overly so.

ODO: It’s funny that you mention Girard. I was introduced to his work recently on a tour at the extraordinary Irwin Miller House in Columbus, Indiana. The place is absolutely stunning and it was the height of style in its time. Girard’s handiwork is all over that house.

I gained my sensitivity and appreciation for the decorative in many different, yet personal ways. I grew up in a household where colour was appreciated and used without fear. Whether it was the crazy and different patterns of wallpaper throughout my parent’s house, the African artefacts hung about, or all the garage sales my mother took me to, I was able to encounter and engage with many different worlds of history.

AWB: Where does a painting begin for you, and what is the process like, from beginning to end?

ODO: A painting first exists in my mind, and then I have the desire to see it fully visualised and realised. It is not that what I am painting has to be real – it’s more about bringing my mind and body to a place of awareness and presentness. I know I am done when multiple realisations comes into play.

AWB: There seems to have been more energy and interest in painting in the past few years than, say, five or 10 years ago? Are you finding that artists, curators, patrons and institutions are looking at painting with fresh eyes and in new ways?

ODO: I think we are in a more visually literate period – it could be our dealings with the internet and just this information age that we live in now. The art world is completely different from the one I experienced more than 20 years ago. And I think it is for the better. There is just so much more room in what one can do as a painter today, and especially in who can be a painter.

AWB: Your exhibition The Velocity of Change at New York’s Jack Shainman Gallery has just ended. Is there anything in particular from it that you would like to highlight?

ODO: I introduced a new series of wood-panel paintings that relate to, yet depart from, previous work I have made in Plexiglas. The wood panels work in concert with the paint to create an intersection between the natural and the virtual. The canvas paintings expand on my previous investigations of space through pattern, but I am extending the conversation of space found in painting through its potentiality as a virtual construct.

AWB: Can you list a few of your projects that stand out for you as particularly successful or dynamic? I imagine this may have a lot to do with a particular setting, or moment in time, but hearing about your reflections on some notable projects would be interesting.

ODO: I look to challenge myself with every installation I do, so each one has its particular importance. I am always looking to see how I can push the scope of vision within the malleable concept of space. Third Space at the ICA in Philadelphia in 2009 was particularly important in how I tried to expand on a contorted space. What it underscored for me was the fact that the viewing centre of this space was outside and across the street from the institution itself. I also became aware of the importance of the colour white in my installations.

AWB: You’ve made your home in Philadelphia. What do you find interesting about Philadelphia? I grew up there and it is a great city for art. Would you agree that, right now, it seems to be a particularly good moment for artists and institutions there? I wrote one of two graduate school application essays on your 2009 exhibition at the ICA Philadelphia: it was a tremendous exhibition for me at that moment, and is still an important touchstone.

ODO: That’s nice to hear about the ICA project. It was fully challenging and rewarding for me. I agree with you about Philadelphia, and I cannot think of a better city to be in as an artist in the US. There are, of course, a number of great artist cities in the States, and what makes them great are usually the art schools in them. Philadelphia has this same situation but, additionally, it is a city in close proximity to New York. New York City to this day is still the capital of the western art world. Philadelphia’s proximity to New York has always been a curse in the past, but things feel truly different now. Philadelphia is a culturally thriving city with an entrepreneurial spirit, as much, if not more so, than its neighbouring suburb-cities that have 10 times Philadelphia’s wealth. Philadelphia is the place to be if you are culturally curious, inventive and entrepreneurial. It has amazing restaurants, fantastic concert halls, theatres, museums and art schools and a great bar scene. It’s a crazy city with the kind of energy I remember feeling when I first moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, back in the early 1990s.

AWB: Which artists have had the biggest influence on your work and your thinking about art, and how? I would venture to connect, or consider, Agnes Martin, Sol LeWitt, El Anatsui, Michelle Grabner, Mark Bradford, Morris Louis, Mark Grotjahn and Tal R, to name a few. I’m thinking here less of comparisons and more of a constellation of ideas and artists. What are your thoughts?

ODO: Early on in graduate school, I was enamoured by the work of Félix González-Torres, and before that, in undergraduate school, by the work of On Kawara. With González-Torres, I was emotionally and spiritually moved by his turning an art form such as minimalism into a space that spoke to identity. This was amazing to me – he was actually renewing the art object and a genre. With Kawara, I was amazed by the idea of having a travelling studio, of being able to work anywhere you travelled; in essence, in the idea that one could have a studio exist out of a suitcase. Then there are, of course, artists that I can think of now who have greatly influenced me because of their elegance, attitude, fortitude or inner strength – Jacqueline Humphries, Fred Sandback, Steven Parrino, Adrian Piper, Agnes Martin, Bridget Riley, Alma Thomas, Stanley Whitney, Richard Tuttle, Radcliffe Bailey, Jacob Lawrence, Senga Nengudi, Ellsworth Kelly and Olivier Mosset.

AWB: What are some of the more interesting exhibitions, artists and works that you have seen or been made aware of recently? What parts of our current visual and aesthetic culture do you find exciting?

ODO: There are a lot of exhibitions I speak about with my students at the Tyler School of Art. Most notably, I am thinking a lot about the 2007-08 Unmonumental exhibition at the New Museum in New York. I am interested in how the work in this show still ties into a certain attitude coming out of student production today, and with respect to the cultural and economic conditions we now have in the 21st century. I think what the Studio Museum in Harlem has done in the past 10 years is as groundbreaking as what the New Museum under Marsha Tucker did in the late-1980s to the early-90s. And there are great, new, fresh minds working out there in the satellite institutions and cities throughout the world that are continually bringing new ideas to the forefront. We just have to continue to be openminded to let all of this new information have the chance to grow and survive.

AWB: What big projects have you got coming up? Any commissions, murals, or experimental projects that you can share?

ODO: Well, I spoke earlier of Girard and the Irwin Miller House. I was recently in Indiana to see this house because I am preparing a commission proposal for Cummins Inc, the company that was brought into Fortune 500 status under the leadership of Miller. Miller was a visionary. The leadership he maintained at Cummins was paramount, and this was coupled with a moral code that would put most business people and politicians working today to shame. His vast legacy will be the kind of thing I will focus on in my proposal for Cummins. I continue to be very interested in projects of this sort that involve a heightened sense of vision and ambition that goes well beyond the limits of the white cube.

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