A Conversation with Odili Donald Odita

Philippe Pirotte
Director, Kunsthalle
Bern, Switzerland

Let us start to talk about some works. Could you tell me more about the work "Body/Space" (2002)? It seems to define an ongoing vertical strip with things becoming temporally concrete...

I first made this piece in December 2000 at the Kunsthalle in St. Gallen, Switzerland. This piece is essentially taking the construct of the black body and placing it in space as an abstract - first beginning with the term "black" and taking this phrase literally and objectively (black as a person, a space, a thing) and placing the color directly on the wall. Then I used 9 various color pigments to create 9 rectilinear vertical forms that referenced the form of a body, and in turn creating a body-space (it is interesting to me that this shape could also connote a grave). This body-space took on the color of skin types associated with 'black' people, and hence the piece creates another level of meaning - the interrelationship between the general (black wall), and the specific (colors pigments) reality of the "black" body. In my work of this type I am very interested in the idea of "blackness" as an abstract thought, as an abstracted idea. This inspiration crystallized for me after reading an interview of artist, David Hammons conducted by my friend, the filmmaker/scholar, Manthia Diawara for Art Forum Magazine in the mid/late 1990's. In this article, Hammons refers to the concept of black as an abstraction, and the lack of aesthetic investigation of this idea in terms of abstraction.

Tell me about the "End-or-fin" (1997) project at the Johannesburg Biennial? It looks like not only a site-specific, but also even more a debate-specific intervention.

This was a project selected by Okwui Enwezor, curator of the 2 nd Johannesburg Biennale. He specifically chose that piece, because for him it represented the condition of the black male in South Africa at that time, which was the condition of existing as a living target. I wanted to portray an image of a man caught in the "rapture" of death throes - a dancing death image (end-or-fin = endorphin). The man pictured in the image is that of the great dancer, Bill T. Jones.

"Halfway" (2001) is more like an installation dealing with urbanism. This installation-work seems to be one of the ongoing paths in your oeuvre.

Yes, this was a constructed house that was a metaphoric replica of the type visible throughout the Nigerian landscape I was traveling through during the summer of 2001. Buildings half completed then abandoned due to a loss of funds, or interest. This was a very typical, upsetting and sad sight. And it is very reflective of the economic and social conditions of the country at this time.

In one of the installation views I see a construction with bricks - explain this to me?

The piece you are referring to is titled, "House and Home," (2002) made for my one-person exhibition at the Miami Art Museum in 2002 as part of their 'New Works' series. It is an extension of the ideas in "Halfway", but I wanted to also include the judgment powers of the viewer in that the viewer can decide for himself or herself if this construction is a building-up, or a tearing-down. And comparatively, taking the state and condition of Nigeria as an example, one might see this country as a place that is in its process of building itself up to being healthy and independent, or in the reverse, to see it as a place in perpetual breakdown.

Can you explain what kind of work you will create for the Matrix Art Project exhibition? Your show is entitled, " Resistance ." Tell me about the conceptualization of the project.

I plan to work with the word " Resistance " as an idea that exists as double negative: First, I plan to examine what it means for someone like myself in this world to show resistance to social constructs and cultural attitudes that dehabilitate and confuse. On the inverse, when communicating with art, one needs to understand the opposite of being resistant, and engage more so in a state of "submission," of being able to submit to a foreign body (the work of art) to begin to understand and engage with it. Beauty can be an active element within this process.

You work with different media/surfaces. What is the relationship between them? How do you define the relationship between the works that operate in a more conceptual, direct discursive way (like some of the installations), the "abstract" paintings, and the figurative drawings?

I see these elements as working hand-in-hand. Whether it is bringing together various media, and/or abstraction with figuration, I use these means as a way of opening up and helping to shape the contexts into which I want the work to be seen. From the very beginning, I saw this as a very necessary aspect to my project as art viewers today can very quickly reduce and consume information into minute and generalized bits without getting to any concrete, specific, and in turn, complex issues. And along with common prejudices and misunderstandings of abstract painting (primarily of its history), it was my imperative to make sure my project would be seen clearly by it not being confused with other work being done now, or work that has been done in the past.

Could you tell me more about the spatial scope of your painting, both within the painting as a surface (from inaccessible flatness towards landscape-like perspectives), and outside as an object (on canvas), a spatial element (wall-painting), or the moment it is juxtaposed to other objects forming an installation.

I am not so interested in the minimalist/formalist concern of painting as an object, nor the conceptualist concern of painting as a commodity, rather, I am interested in painting as a signifier to culture - as a cultural space with a cultural history - and not as a representation of a single culture, but of several blended and fused together. Painting exists in many forms and formats - I want to keep myself open to this possible blending, while at the same time knowing and understanding the distinct, respective nature of each of these forms/formats.

Do we deal with the perversion of self - referentiality? With post-painterly abstraction necessarily accepting a lot of contextual references (in each painting there is also the representation of an idea about painting), you are blurring the contradiction between abstract and representational painting. At the same time you also create an ambiguity around the idea of the "cultural informing" image by combining your discursive work with abstract paintings. It is real, but it is an image, and vice versa.

Yes. And as you say, it is also a fantasy of sorts. The dream, or desire for place and being always tenuously in grasp.

The impossibility to contemplate in more recent works has changed (in some of the earlier hard-edge abstract works one seems to be kept out of the pictorial space). Why has that changed? Could you describe that evolution of paintings that are closed upon themselves (when considering space) towards paintings that seem to become landscapes? What happened?

This is a very interesting question to me. In the early paintings I was trying to create a field that was only complete when and until the viewer stepped into the space in front of the painting/picture. Only at this moment could the painting be complete as a picture, which was in my mind that of a picture of a person looking into a cultural vista, a space, a sublime, an Other. This in turn made this painted space real (for instance the sound of a falling tree in a forest that goes unheard until it is heard). The impenetrability you describe was the impenetrability of cinema, the picture, and the image. This is something that I have been fascinated with since I could begin to look at and understand pictures. One does not penetrate an image, it penetrates you - like a slogan, or propaganda. Let us remember that all these visual materials are culturally grounded, and it is important to recognize from where their meaning is derived. The landscape issue you bring up is my play with the idea of space within the painting as pictorial and referential. Ultimately, for me the formalist idea of abstraction does not exist. Even a straight horizontal line existing as the only element in a canvas can connote the horizon line of a landscape that we can easily see anywhere when looking out into space. I enjoy the play of ambiguity between these two points, but in my mind, the fusion of abstraction and figuration that I understand brings this dichotomy to a nil point.

Also the titles seem to create some ambiguity around representation/abstraction...

The titles are used as keys into the pictures I make, but my paintings also hopefully have many doors, and many other entrances for the viewer to get inside.

There is a sense of ambiguity regarding time evolving over the works. Evacuated by collapsing depth, the notion of time comes back in contradictory moves in more recent work.

In the early days of working on my project, time was experienced more as an instant, almost graphically like a photograph, but now I enjoy experiencing time in my painting as a window into a deep space, not so much pictorial as much as virtual. And I see this space like an onion, unraveling as layers, and like boards in a video game, advancing from one plane of consciousness to the next.

By your reception of abstraction as a decoration, you deliberately deny a utopian scope. In combination with your more political conceptual works this starts to function as a diagnosis of a state of affairs where viewers are kept out in the same time. Is there no promise of participation here?

Of course, there is no one way for everyone to think, speak and live alike, but I do understand decoration as embellishment, as power, and of the cultural connectivity of this force called the "decorative," however enacted, and in whichever culture it is enacted. This is how I believe we can participate - in accepting the force of others and respecting this alongside our own.

Is deconstruction of myths ("modernist painting," "the black body") a valid interpretation of your work? I got the impression that it reflects more on the possibilities of holding things together. It seems that through the negotiation of the traditional pictorial rectangle and its overflow or displacement, "painting" as a tradition connected to a symbolic field of culture has been permanently at the horizon as a desire.

If I understand you correctly, then I say yes, that painting in effect holds the desire of the maker, and reflects the desire of the viewer. I have tried to open up my painting project to also include the desires of a specific time (modernism/modernity), and show both its failure, as well as a way out of this failure.

I would not like to call your art a hybrid or a fusion because it would move interpretation of your work towards a deconstructive analysis in order to define its sources.

(Laughs). Too late, but yes, I particularly do not like the application of the term, "hybrid" - it simply sounds too horrific, like some indescribable atrocity from a horror film.

Could you extend on the notion of dealing with memory and the nostalgia for a lost past in your work?

This is essentially coming from my being raised in America after my family fled Nigeria before the start of the Biafrian War. It is difficult to accept that you might have lived a different life in a different place had it not been for something as drastic as war that can change a person's life completely. I pose reflections on this issue in one way through the creation and depiction of landscape-like settings, and through the use of colors to trigger these feelings of remoteness, of distance, and of desire for another place of being.

I would rather look at the arrival of meaning than to its origins. What do you think about the very problematic and conflicting use of appropriation in the actual (globalized) art world? You use African visual tropes in your imagery among a lot of other elements. How can you engage in a conversation between different artistic traditions without merely deconstructing symbolic fields on the one hand, and accumulating cultural symbolic capital on the other? How do you go beyond this instrumentalization of the cultural?

Yes, the arrival of meaning - this is energy, enlightenment if you will, in that one has discovered something in and outside of one's self. And again, you bring up a very distinct and interesting point in the appropriation of cultural visual tropes. For instance, I think of Yinka Shonibare as a sophisticated intellectual, and I think of Chris Ofili as the great pragmatist as businessman. To be able to utilize one's own cultural signs without objectifying and commodifying - to get to central and complex issues through these means is a very difficult venture. How does one do this without pandering to cultural prejudices and stereotypes that exist as part and parcel of this inquiry? One has to be very sophisticated and skillful as are both Shonibare and Ofili, but to what end do you bring this conversation?

Following this question around the problematic of appropriation, I would like to delve into the idea of "ready-made culture," and the appropriation of identity. What could be the differences between European cultural experience and that of America? Where does Africa situate itself in this mental geography? Where does cultural significance arrive now that all positions are received aesthetically, rather than in terms of some kind of truth-claim?

Let me first begin by saying that I feel that Africa has a closer intellectual relationship with Europe than with America. I see this primarily through the relations that where created and maintained through colonialism. In the aspect of "ready-made culture," this is a global phenomenon, and not so much owned directly by either America, or Europe. Desire within the African for the modern world and all its clichés comes from the media control that originates from the west. Whether it is Mercedes Benz or Michael Jackson, the effects of both on the African mind is the same - the general African would want more of this stuff to take them out of the somewhat dire conditions that she or he may be experiencing. No one is solely to blame; rather everyone is to blame. Cultural significance is necessary in that it helps to define our difference and to make these differences interesting. The real problem arises when they are used to define overall, and absolute truths, and in-turn, impose a restriction on life.

What possibilities are there for artistic positions now that they are recognized as fictions?

Is this really a problem (fictions)? If one is to understand history as a string of fictions that has only benefit those few in power - to add onto this is very problematic. But if we are to engage in possibility and potential within aesthetics, then it could be very beneficial to employ fiction in its various conditions.

In the contemporary art world it sometimes seems that there is a deeply rooted mistrust towards images that are not easy to translate into another language. Language has led to a lot of projects "beyond art," and contextualized within an "extended" notion of culture that demands from visual arts to "communicate" next to documents such as television and other "media," symptomatically displacing the artistic question of the visual with the question of visibility. Since some exhibitions are not conceived anymore as exhibitions in the strict sense of the term, their intentional space is more and more formulated by the terminology of social sciences, as the site where "knowledge is produced," or which is "inhabited by interdisciplinarity." Certainly in the supposed "globalized" art world, the commodification of the so-called "other," occurs when the visual becomes a sign in a narrative (as in an anthropological exhibition), and reveals the so-called "correct" stories and loaded images with a political surplus value that would maintain a subordinate position in a power relationship. This seems to be the only way to deal with a population of artists from culturally different backgrounds. And this all may seem very normal now, as we are already used to these characterizations, but what is not evident is the easiness by which these legitimations throw overboard that which constitutes an "art exhibition."

Yes, see DOCUMENTA XI. This exhibition, I think, will be seen as a very important pivot in the idea, and examination of "art exhibitions." We have to begin to realize that verbal discourse/texts are but one way to engage with an artwork, but it is not, nor should it be taken as the definitive way to do so.

When considering your carefully installed shows, like for example, "The Invisible Empire," it seems that you believe in the art-exhibition as a possible device where meaning is not produced, but where it arrives, where it reveals itself without making judgments.

Yes, exactly! I believe in raising questions and being motivated by the thoughts generated from them. This is what I am trying to do in the exhibition space.

Instead of a "culture of display," you seem to favor a zone where interaction, immobility, the placement of the spectators body, focus on the object, and dialectics between the different concrete artworks act as key-elements. Abstraction resists instrumentalization even though issues are addressed. And a point of view seems to be formulated, which one cannot escape (I think here of the work titled, "Cut Out," (1999) which looks like a circle from a torch that projects a black light beam).

Yes, in essence, I am curating myself, and in the process, I am raising questions and constructing ideas within an exhibition space.

Once "culture" stood for "the best that was ever thought and said in world history," to say it with the words of the English critic Matthew Arnold. Of course, this sounds absurd now, to engage an implicit western superiority complex in combination with the idea of human development, education, and emancipation. This notion of culture has been exposed as a veiled euro-centrism, and a form of cultural imperialism. Cultural relativism and the construction of the so-called multicultural society disgraced this definition of culture. Culture is no longer thought of as transmission, education and spiritual development, rather it is seen in terms of conflict, power, and the accumulation of symbolical capital.

Yes, and I feel this becomes so when understanding "culture" as a word, or an idea in the singular. By its nature, and in the best sense, I see this word as being able to exist in an open and plural state.

In the same transition, "Fine Arts" and "Culture" divorced. This provoked an excessive solidarity with the subordinate position as the driving force of emancipatory forces in art and culture against the logic of instrumental reason and the seduction of consumer society. Under pressure of mass media and technological evolution, boundaries between high and low culture disappear and technology infiltrates the arts. The impact of leisure culture and market-economic thinking in the sector of the arts forced some artists to take up ever sharper and more marginal positions. So, the fact that a lot of art indeed wants to address different social and political problems in contemporary society, and for doing so wants to function as a direct and pure means of communication, that on top of that aims at producing a direct effect, is in the best case naïve (the art institution sharpens its frame because otherwise these acts would be invisible), and in the worst case is counter-productive, because a number of these practices arrived in the art-world because they were not able to find another public. What do you think in this context of the "knowingly gratuitousness" (art is not essentially the answer to a question, or the solution to a presented problem) that Michael Fried characterized contemporary art with? And what do you think is the place and effectiveness of art?

I could agree with Michael Fried, but certainly not from the same theoretical platform. I believe that it is pretentious of art to think that it can solve our social problems like dictators and politicians think they can solve our social problems. Rather, it has in it the power to bring together a collective. And as such, the power regimes within our world structure create the situations we have where this potential collective will never be able to band together and exist as a functioning body. Whether this is executed through divisive notions of nationalism, race, gender, religious faith, class, history, etc., there will continue to be distractions set up against this idea of the collective body. Art can only successfully bring to attention the infinite questions that we ask as human beings. It is up to us all as thinking people to be able to find and communicate, with respect to the full potential of our humanity, the possibilities of what can exist hereafter.

Philippe Pirotte is an art historian, critic and curator based in Antwerp, Belgium where he co-founded objectif_exhibitions. He is an Advisor at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, and a guest lecturer at the Universities of Ghent, Maastricht and Amsterdam. In January 2005, Pirotte will begin his post as the Director of the Kunsthalle, Bern, Switzerland.

This interview was originally published in conjunction with the exhibition, " RESISTANCE " at Matrix Art Project, Brussels, September 27 - October 30, 2003.