An Interview with Odili Donald Odita
Christine Y. Kim
The Studio Museum in Harlem
March 30, 2001
CYK: Donald, it's been such a pleasure having your painting, Remote (2000), included in Material and Matter  at The Studio Museum in Harlem. I have witnessed an incredible range of responses to your work from our audiences: children, students, adults, museum-goers, and tourists, et al. There is clearly a magnetic pull to Remote: people are drawn into the space of the painting, hanging squarely between the Romuald Hazoume figurative sculptures and Nari Ward's twisted tree trunk piece, Den (1999). There is an undoubtedly an immediate, visceral draw, something on an aesthetic wow-this-is-so-beautiful level. Some viewers are left suspended in the moment. Others inquire further about what the image depicts, refers to, or contextualizes. Gerard Genette discusses two levels of response to art, specifically to painting: the aesthetic experience –the encounter, viewing the work— and the artistic experience –the discourse, process, ideas, etc. that the viewer cannot necessarily access in aesthetic perception alone. 
ODO: Yes, I see these distinct levels also. The painting exists as a state. On one hand the aesthetic experience is enough, and yet there are many other aspects, whether or not the viewer pushes in this direction, that exist in the work. They have to do with my personal history, intentions, process and concepts. I suppose that's true with many artists. The paintings are actually beginnings. They exist in the space of no words. The space where words cannot even begin to manifest these ideas, these realities and this time, but can be felt in the experience of looking at these colors and rhythms. The paintings exist as paintings, and that's important to me. Where I'm coming from is also important, but I don't place the text as a screen in front of the paintings. It's not about what the text is as much as what it does.
CYK: There are varying degrees of that process of interpretation in the work. Some viewers seem to engage in this duality clearly when discussed in the context of, say, Nari's sculpture… and especially with Glenn Ligon's coal dust paintings which are hanging upstairs in the mezzanine gallery.  Glenn has emphasized that he is not implying to the viewer, “hey, read this essay or reread this essay because it's important.” He is incorporating the text into his work and concealing it, revealing it, abstracting it as part of an artistic process.
ODO: And abstracting his experience. I love those paintings and I especially appreciate his ideas of simplicity and complexity. Coal dust is an industrial waste material, isn't it?
CYK: Yes. It's used for sandblasting.
ODO: It's simple. It's also complex because that's the material that Glenn has chosen to use in the context of these paintings, not gold leaf or some fancy oil paint. The black canvas is simple, but the discourse of “black” is complex. The surface is visible, but the layers of what's embedded underneath is not, it goes back and forth.
CYK: “Embedded” physically and conceptually.
ODO: He is using the coal dust and making these things that look like paintings, and are painting, but instead of, say, just paint, it's the coal dust mixed with mediums and different supports, canvas, paper, silkscreen and so forth. He has a process. His conceptualizations of the material and reasons for using the materials, and the text have another dimension. To me that is very sophisticated.
CYK: How would you describe those contextual, material and process-oriented aspects in your work, the simplicity and complexity?
ODO: There are many different sources I can recall now. First of all, there is what's autobiographical: my father is an art historian and also a painter. He is Nigerian. I grew up around his paintings. I grew up around African artifacts, traditional objects. It was a household of value systems of an Igbo, a Nigerian, but specifically an Igbo.
CYK: What's an Igbo?
ODO: The specific ethnic group I'm part of. I'm an Igbo. Say Fatima Tuggar is a Hausa. Yinka Shinobare, I believe, is a Yoruba. There are many different ethnic groups in Nigeria with over two hundred dialects spoken. All these different cultural groups and the three major ones are the ones I mentioned: Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo and also the Fulani are a pretty predominant group there. We all have our specific ways of doing things, but there's a commonality of course, being Africans. There is a commonality in the continent that is also an intensely specific way of being as well. So in my work I'm interested in replicating that type of thing. It's about the complexity of life itself. It's hard for me to be exact about which aspects of the traditions come into my work, but I can in describe the character of Igbos and how we are perceived, both internally as a group, and how we are perceived by others outside of the group. Let's say that my Igbo-ness is one of the many things that help shape who I am, also in the way that I have this existence where I didn't grow up in Nigeria. I don't know my own language. I don't speak Igbo. My parents didn't teach me Igbo. It is sort of shocking to be part of group in which you don't know the language. Then, at the same time, growing up in America, people who know me a bit more who say, “you're American,” and that's simplistic, or, even generally, people seeing the color of your skin and saying, “you're a black person,” and not even locating me. Am I Haitian, Brazilian? Where am I from? It's something I battle with in my work, trying to make things more specific and at the same time opening them up so that the layers and meanings can overlap. There is so much in my work that is American, from the seventies and eighties too.
CYK: Yes. Much of your source material comes from growing up in the ‘burbs, an American kid, sort of like me. Twenty years ago you were in grade school in Ohio, watching television, B-RUNing on your Apple II+, scoring high in Pong, watching Three's Company re-runs, cartoons interrupted by television test bars, fuzzy bits and bytes, stereo equalizers, and all these markers of digital technology that we don't necessarily discuss in the context of contemporary painting, but certainly are what we recognize as digital iconology and enter into your work as source material. Upon first glance many viewers see African textiles and even African landscapes. The irony is that it's not just that. It gets romanticized. These readings sort of satisfy the viewer's expectation of what an African artist might be inspired by directly and therefore produce.
ODO: Yes, that to me is very funny.
CYK: It's very curious. You're not some joker saying “I'm going to trick you,” but the joke still happens. You're reconciling these various kinds of traditional and contemporary materials, narratives, personal experiences, intellectual, art historical and academic influences, and integrating them, coming up with your own vernacular. Then the painting has another life when you are no longer in that room.
ODO: I think it's great that you see that. That's sort of what I mean when I say it's a challenge for the curator to dialogue with the work in exhibition spaces and also with the audience. I am always challenging my own sense of knowledge and intellect. As much as I'd like to think of myself as an intellectual, I was never one of those kids who read classical literature and the encyclopedia all of the time. I liked reading comic books and I liked thinking about things on the same plane. Yeah, I grew up around a professor-father and was surrounded by intellectuals, but kids don't differentiate between the high and low. To me comic books were as important as looking at books on Michelangelo, which I did at the same time. I loved those images, but I also loved the Fantastic Four. They were the same thing to me. I didn't have any of this stuff until I went to college, where a teacher said to me, “put away those Frank Frazetta books, don't look at that rubbish,” and I was upset because I loved my Frank Frazetta books. Then there's the rupture between experience and perception about being black in America, and being a first-generation African family in America.
CYK: Is there a “tourist” reading of your work? Does it matter? Where is that rupture between experience and perception for you?
ODO: Yeah, there's a battle there, a challenge with the individual who comes to the work, what he/she brings to the work, and his/her sense of these issues or lack thereof, a sense of placing these issues, and how they might apply their own value judgements based on African art, African-American art, or textile versus painting.
CYK: Then the discourse gets interesting on another level, when you start perceiving that perception, perception being conditioned by this experience.
ODO: Again, I really think it's funny because when I start looking at it I realize that am I giving the people what they want: the African making the textile of so called things, and these paintings are not African textiles, and they are not about African textiles. It's funny that people are using these words instantly to describe the paintings. In one sentence in a newspaper article, the reviewer used phrases like, how I “jump to Minimalism.”
ODO: Yes, through a social window. The aspiration is to bring these things to another level. I think its funny to see that on a certain level I'm bringing something so called stereotypical into this space, this Africanism, this thing, but it goes quickly if you see beyond that. It's always been a struggle to bring these issues to the table.
CYK: Communicating and negotiating your thoughts and processes.
ODO: Yes, and how you have to continue to adapt yourself to the situation, and mold your work so that you can penetrate the space and then carry people onward to another place. It's what Yinka Shinobare is doing. There's something more here you don't know. Once you know you can engage in the conversation and go on. The notion of textile and the fact that this African textile is actually European. It's not “African.” I'm not necessarily trying to pinch the viewer and say, “wake up.” I just want to be able to bring the viewer to this space of experiencing space as a painting.
CYK: There's this quote from an article in Flash Art Magazine that I find interesting in relation to your earlier work which states, “The Bad Dream of Modernism is what T.J. Clark in Pollock's Abstraction, writes of art's inability to escape the metaphoric, the commodity.  This fate for painting is discussed in light of Cecil Beaton's 1951 Vouge photographs which employed Pollack's Autumn Rhythm as decorative backdrop for a fashion spread, pointing to the modernist problematic of kitsch and the avant-garde.”
ODO: I think my work enters that space through the idea of wallpaper, the television test band pattern, and the screen saver. Those are three very important, very specific relationships that I had with painting. When I was looking at painting in the very early 90s, when I was right out of school, the idea of staring at the computer screensaver where you have things shooting out from the screen, and then imagining and getting into the phenomenon of these electronically produced images shooting out at you from that flat screen. You get this idea that you're in space, that you are in something that has depth, but it's just in the electronic screen. It was fascinating to stare at that thing and to notice the space, and then the TV test band pattern, going beyond the top and bottom and the left and right. You wonder if it continues beyond the edge when you know in fact that's the end of the picture tube. It's this phenomenon of space again going beyond the screen which reminds me of being in graduate school at Bennington College and speaking to one of the professors there in a studio critique. She said the end of the frame is the end of the picture, that nothing exists outside this reality. That's the Modernist space of painting, that the frame of the painting is the end of the world. I was starting to say in my way that there are other worlds outside of this world. That comes into the notion of what Modernism is and how Modernism and aspects of it were mined outside of itself and brought into the center space, but in this process of presentation in the center, it ignores, or doesn't regard the extremities anymore. So this actuality within the process of making a painting became conceptual, like you are supposed to see the painting as the world and that's that. Let me conceptualize this idea of perceiving the painting as a world and what it means; how I place myself in that, and what the “Other” means in relation to painting. Then say perceptually, what it means when you have this sense that the screen continues, or that motion continues inside and outside. For me, it's these formal things that become conceptualized processes, and become philosophical, cultural, and so forth.
CYK: Wallpaper. Can you elaborate on this point?
ODO: Wallpaper is really fascinating for me, and it's starting to come back into my mind again. There was a time when I had left it, and now its back again. Wallpaper was a motivation because for me, that was Western painting, this ultimate conclusion. Well, that's how I read it, in the sense of reading all these essays and theories of Modern painting and its conclusion into Postmodernism. Then I came to my own relationship with paint, wallpaper, Modernism, wallpaper as a transition between Modernism and Postmodernism and understanding this philosophical jump into Postmodernism, and what it means not only in western culture, but what it means for myself as an artist. Wallpaper was this space where there is nothing new. It was just a system repeating itself, creating a fabric. The paintings grew from this system. Then I stopped painting from about 1994 to 1997, and went on to do more conceptual photo based work, because painting became only wallpaper for me. There wasn't anything new in the painting for me, I didn't think it could carry all this weight, all these other issues that I wanted to include in it at that time. Then I came back to painting physically in 1997. Before that, I had made maybe one painting a year on masonite, but that was it.
CYK: Were you making the works with mulch and other organic materials and compounds?
ODO: Yeah, I was doing those kinds of mixed media things, but I wasn't really painting, I was always thinking about it, conceptualizing it, but I wasn't painting. Later it just came back to me. The curating I did was positive for me; it was a point of seeing many artists working, many different types of productions. So it came to me: why not painting as well? It can exist with all these other notions and medias. I relaxed with this idea of painting. It wasn't so tense any more. It wasn't a burden; the history of western painting wasn't a burden.
CYK: It turns painting inward. When we look at painting we are still somewhere perceiving painting through painting, defining perspective, distance, architecture… Whether it's looking through the window at the Renaissance piazza, the figure on the horizon line, or the still life, we are defining things within our own definition of them through the history of painting. To move outward a bit, which is also inward, you achieve more room to work in.
ODO: It was weighty, and it became simplified. I accepted things about it, and maybe that's why now I'm able to have these interesting aspects.
CYK: What's your process for making those paintings?
ODO: Well there are a lot of different patterns and systems I'm looking at and thinking about in relation to looking at things.
CYK: So when you look at a digital rendition of something, do you replicate the color and dimension? How does that happen? Does it happen in the studio and/or in the space of that experience?
ODO: It's intuitive, and I feel that in a way it's becoming more traditional, not in a western sense, but in the sense of perceiving, just simply perceiving. I'm amazed at the simultaneity of everything, realizing that this is a natural, organic version of the manmade experience in the city where everything is simultaneous in your dealing with electronic, or socially constructed systems. But we have always been dealing with socially constructed systems like agriculture or government between ethnic groups and so forth, you know? It's more like the texture of life.
CYK: There is something inherently unpredictable and organic in seemingly most constructed systems, micro and macro patterns, simultaneous shifts of multiple dimensions… when physics becomes poetry.
ODO: Yes. I like to think of my paintings like that.
CYK: There is an incredible rhythm to the paintings. They vibrate beyond the surface of the canvas. One gets a sense of time, rhythm and continuity.
ODO: Music is very important to me. It is represented in terms of sound and time and how you can have a drone, or an unmodulated drone. Let's say you break that drone. On one hand, it sounds like your making less, because you're breaking it, but your actually making more. It's like taking an open space and putting up a wall, then another wall, and another. You're actually cutting up and making the space less because of the added walls, but you are also making more space for yourself. Or like a shelf. You can pile your books on the floor or you can put them on the shelf. Once you put them on the shelf, you can have more books in that space. That's an interesting aspect of space. Another is the character or quality you can affect in a space through color or the modulation of that color, or in what manner you apply the paint. There are many layers in the paintings. Many of the colors you see there are not necessarily the colors that I started with. Most of the time they are not.
CYK: Do you start directly on the canvas or do you begin with studies and tests, samples and sketches?
ODO: I do tests of the colors, but I never make a smaller version of a larger painting. I don't want to do that, because I want to be surprised at the end. I've always wanted to eradicate chance, but I realize that it's in the work more so than I acknowledge because I'm dealing with so many possible outcomes. I realize that this could have been a totally different painting. Would I like it? What would I feel? So chances become a greater thing. It alleviates the other stuff and allows me to paint with a different intuitive process.
CYK: I've always felt that your conceptual rigor in painting comes from the evolution in your photo-based work.
ODO: It's interesting to me how much of what I'm doing comes out of photography. The photo-based work was an important strategy, having people come to those places where they can recognize Africa rather than a Frank Stella, or the earth of an African landscape versus Barnett Newman's Red. Everything can be seen as something else. There have always been artists of non-western origin bringing their own specificity into their art, and that's what I want to do. I want to allow other notions to come into play. The photo based-work was the beginning of this conceptual process.
CYK: The Authentic African (1997) photographs depicted you in four different stereotypical African guises: “shell boy,” “militia,” “priest,” and … what was the fourth?
ODO: A business man. I was able to get very direct in those works and my conceptual presentations, my dialoging with Africa and Africanisms and what it means to be an 'Other,' specifically an African ‘Other' in the Western states. I appreciate being included in exhibitions that are culturally-specific like Material and Matter, and in exhibitions that are examining in new ways abstract painting, Minimialism, Modernism, as both are major components of my work.
3 Glenn Ligon: Stranger is a solo exhibition curated by Thelma Golden at The Studio Museum in Harlem which features eleven paintings from his coal dust series… January 31 – April 1, 2001 These works incorporate text from James Baldwin's 1953 treatise “Stranger in the Village.”
4 Lauri Firstenberg, "African Experiences," Flash Art International, Vol. 33, No. 210, Jan-Feb. 2000, pp. 68-70.)