The Los Angeles–based David Kordansky Gallery, which recently opened a New York space, will now represent artist Odili Donald Odita, who is known for his dynamic abstractions that pulse with energy. Odita will continue to be represented by Jack Shainman Gallery in New York and Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town. He will have his first show at Kordansky next year and will feature in the gallery’s booth at Art Basel in Switzerland this month.
Odita’s paintings and large-scale wall installations are defined by their bright colors arranged in dazzling compositions. These abstractions address some of today’s most pressing issues, like the rise of the alt-right and the relationship between the separation of migrant families at the U.S. border and the country’s history of Japanese internment.
“The work is coming out of these ways of thinking, and abstraction is then another way of being able to communicate these very complex conditions,” the Philadelphia-based artist said in a recent interview. “For me the abstract is real. There’s no sense of it being divorced from reality or divorced from the present or divorced from human emotion or feeling of thinking. It becomes a form of expression or defining a moment or finding meaning.”
He added, “It’s not just about creating a beautiful painting. What is the beautiful painting saying and doing in the process of being beautiful? Abstraction has allowed me to go beyond the limitations of presentation.”
‘Something Beyond the Ordinary’
Born in Nigeria in 1966, Odita has been drawing and making art for as long as he can remember. His father was an artist and a professor of African art and archaeology at Ohio State University and his childhood home was filled with art books and African art and objects, as well as a few pieces by his father.
His father had collected a series of black-and-white prints. One day Odita sat down and began to copy the stack of prints to improve his drawing skills. “I remember sitting at a table and drawing one after the other until I woke up with my face in my drawings,” he said. “It was like just an automatic action just to experience the work by redrawing it.” (He also copied from Marvel comic books, including those featuring Thor, the Incredible Hulk, and the Fantastic Four.)
When he was around eight years old, Odita began to help his father stretch and gesso his canvases. That experience he said continues to influence how he approaches “structure, shape, and color” in his own work. He added, “It’s things like that that make me think there is something beyond the ordinary with my connection to art.”
He had entered college at Ohio State as a figurative painter but slowly gravitated toward abstraction after trying to emulate the work of an M.F.A. student who encouraged him “to do your own thing.”
He continued, “It made me really think about what I want to say. From there on, my work started going toward abstraction in its own way. I started to really engage with what space and time and meaning could be in that format and this kind of thinking.”
Though he almost exclusively works in abstraction now, Odita said he doesn’t see his work as that far removed from the figurative works he had made when he was an art student, or from figuration in general.
“If I’m an abstract artist, but I’m looking at the corners of ceilings and the light shift in a room or a set of steps, am I truly abstracting something? Or is it still a form of representation, of engaging in the real? These are questions I have for myself,” he said. “This distinction between abstraction and figuration is just really a superficial one. It’s all about how you’re engaging the world.”
Another impactful experience came when he moved to New York in the early ’90s after getting his M.F.A. at Bennington College in Vermont. He began working at a dot-com company that did desktop publishing imagery and quickly learned how to use the initial versions of Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.
“We were at the forefront of this digital space, not knowing really how to define it yet,” Odita said. “And from there with the computer screen, I started to really formulate my idea of what space could be.”
That early digital space—’90s screensavers in particular—reminded him of the SMPTE color bars that would appear when you turned on a television when he was growing up. That’s been essential to how he organizes the structures of his canvases, where color represents “that space before language,” he said, adding, “color becomes that force that transcends time and transcends the limits of space.”
Around this time, Odita met curator Okuwi Enwezor and artists Olu Oguibe and Iké Udé. “It was like the world just exploded, and I started to realize my own identity—the things I couldn’t say but felt about myself and my experience in the United States being in this Nigerian bubble,” he said.
Those meetings allowed Odita to think about how he could adapt the formal concerns in his art to address his own identity through abstraction. In his work, particularly his paintings featuring zig-zag patterns that adapt similar ones seen in African textiles, Odita is “fusing these two realities—an African reality with an American reality—together, representing these two different sides within this one space, called the painting,” he said.
He continued, “I’m also thinking about Blackness and what it means to be Black in America, what it means to be a Black male in America. That’s always a changing concept because of the ways in which we thought about it in the ’90s is different from how we think about it today.”
One of those differences has been the blatant rise of the alt-right and the resurgence of fascist ideologies from those seeking or holding political office, in the U.S. and other parts of the world. “Right now, I’m engaging with power and the idea of what power represents itself as a populist force and the way that it structures space,” he said, referring to deconstructing and abstracting swastikas.
Another recent body of work presents abstracted variations of flowers. Odita said it’s a clear reference to Warhol’s prolific take on the subject matter, though he also wanted to create a parallel between beautiful flowers and how everyday people are attracted to populist fascist ideologies. In nature, he said, “the most colorful, powerfully decorative flowers are the ones that are most poisonous and the most dangerous to wildlife as they attract to kill.”
With solo shows at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2021 and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond in 2020 and work in the collections of the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Odita’s work is constantly in a state of invention and reinvention, always with the aim to think through the world we live in today.
“To be an artist, it’s a process of growth and the process of transformation in which you are continually trying to better understand the world you live in and better understand what you’re communicating through your method of art-making,” he said. “I want to be able to make a painting that makes sense of all this different information—through the process of abstraction, which is to be able to understand the world in the most rigorous way.”