Odili Donald Odita: Re-envisioning Nigeria
Artist limns dreams, nightmares of native Nigeria

The Atlanta Journal Constitution
Sunday, May 1, 2005

Cathy Fox
Art Critic
Atlanta Journal Constitution

Odili Donald Odita grew up, as he says, "with two senses of being."

Out in the world, he was a Midwestern American kid, reading comic books, playing video games, absorbing the cultural messages around him.

At home, he was Nigerian. Although he was 6 months old when his family fled the Biafran war, his parents kept alive his connection to his country and Igbo people through stories, customs and African art, which is his art-historian father's métier.

Like many immigrant children, Odita, 39, found this tug of war uncomfortable. Western perceptions of Africa as violent and backward exacerbated the problem. Consequently, he says, "I couldn't express my culture."

After earning his MFA at Bennington College in Vermont in 1990, he moved to New York, chucked his grad school training and was trying to find himself artistically when he met Okwui Enwezor, an encounter that changed both his psyche and his art.

Enwezor is an influential and respected Nigerian curator and writer. One of the art-world cadre of global citizens, he has curated prestigious shows in Europe and Africa and will soon become academic dean at the San Francisco Art Institute. When Odita met him in 1994, Enwezor, who had come to the United States to study political science, was unknown. But he had embarked on an ambitious project.

He and Nigerian artist Olu Oguibe aimed to bring the contemporary artists of Africa and the African Diaspora to the world stage. Their vehicle: NKA, a journal of African art. Odita joined African artists and thinkers, who gathered every night in Enwezor's apartment, and started working and writing for the magazine by its second issue. The intellectual ferment was exhilarating.

"We were trying to define contemporary African art," he says, brightening at the memory.

Not surprisingly, the issue is still under debate, but Odita credits the early discussion with opening the door.

"It challenged some of the negative ideas people have about Africa and opened the space for a more serious and even-leveled consideration of African art and African artists within the larger debate of contemporary art," he says.

Despite initial resistance --- he recalls dealers dismissing artists whose names they couldn't pronounce --- they had remarkable success in promoting artists. Odita also made a name for himself with media-based and installation art about "the black body in a social/cultural space."

Through his connection with this group, Odita found his identity, as a contemporary African artist. He found his artistic vehicle during a 1998 residency in upstate New York, when he decided to return to painting. The inaugural show at Wertz Contemporary (formerly Kubatana) in Atlanta's Castleberry Hill district south of downtown features the latest incarnation of his hard-edge paintings. They are dynamic compositions of shards, wedges and planes of flat, idiosyncratic color in unexpected combinations.

His earliest paintings of this type, made between 1991 and 1993, grew out of his observations about modern life: television and its manipulation of culture; computers and their creation of hyperspace through digital codes; and wallpaper and its ironic similarity to high modern abstract painting.

In these paintings, Nigeria is the subject and driving force. Odita has infused abstract forms with memory and emotional meaning. He calls the paintings "internal geographies." They suggest water, the meeting of land and sky, the blazing sun.

"The Nigerian landscape is a dream to me," says the Florida State University art professor. "It feeds me spiritually. . . . With all my education, I have no words to express the magic. I try to reach that in my art."

His show is titled "Paradise," but he is no starry-eyed romantic. If the paintings are his dreams of an African Eden, the diaristic drawings in his show communicate the darker side of the story. Described with a spidery line and blots of black ink, "Oil Spill" alludes to the waste of resources through greed and corruption. An emaciated child, straightforwardly drawn, brings the viewer face-to-face with the suffering brought on by drought, war and nonintervention. Often loose and expressionistic, the drawings seem to be the place where Odita lets his emotions go.

The artist, who is married to Swiss-born arts administrator Emanuelle A. Kihm and has a 1-year-old child, trots the globe for exhibits in Europe and Africa. He seems to regard the United States more as a base of operations, a provincial outpost, than home.

"I'm most comfortable around Nigerians and people with a layered sense of the world," he says.

The paintings also allude to the hyperspace created by modern technology, in which everyone is a click or a cellphone call away, and to the revved-up pace it engenders. "I'm aware of the systemic network we exist in, that crosses cultures, nations, genders, even aesthetics," he says.

Although the dislocation he felt in his youth made for anxiety, he now considers it a blessing.

"The ground is shifting now, but I am already used to it, and I have a better understanding of other possibilities," he says. "It prepared me for the contemporary condition."

© Cathy Fox