Talking about Beauty, Abstraction and the role of Design in Odili Donald Odita's work
Can you explain the role of design in your work?
I'm very fascinated by the Italian word disegno. Disegno in English means draw.
Draw, disegno, design. Learning this word I understood that design is like drawing. Design for me is an intention. I need to have a structure for my work; the organization and patterning in the paintings are of my own design. For me, the painting is a metaphoric way to describe the human condition through pattern, design and structure. For me, design must have some use and purpose in art otherwise art it becomes decorative. People often don’t like, nor understand abstraction, neither modern nor contemporary art. They don’t see the usefulness behind abstraction in art, but beauty in art, however realized can produce great thoughts.
What is beauty for you?
Beauty is a fundamental part of art. I’m always searching beauty. Beauty for me comes from outside, from the real world, and I internalize it. Through my art I’m able to bring something from outside into my personal world. We can find beauty for ourselves, but we have to be open to the world and new experiences. Openness means that the mind and body can recognize these elements that come from outside. Beauty can be surprising. Beauty is my inspiration, and beauty can inspire.
Can you explain the role of objects in your artistic process?
Let’s take an umbrella. An umbrella is a useful thing, but an umbrella can be more than just an umbrella in its common functionality. The umbrella issue is about being open to different functions of the object. We can make a metaphor about the object. As an artist, I cannot be stuck on the informational aspects that society give us about objects.
So the idea of umbrella could be trigger in the mind for other consciousness. A painting, for example, is not simply a painting. As another example, I don't believe in the finality of term abstraction, because everything is real, and abstraction as a concept is very basic and open at its foundation. People tend to make it unnecessarily more difficult and harder to understand. All visual materials are culturally grounded and it is important to recognize where their meaning is derived. I love to express my feelings in these objects through abstraction, or rather, open-ended paintings. The power of art comes from the capacity of creating visual representation of invisible feelings. I’m trying to understand this power, trying to represent these thoughts in basic abstracts forms.
What's abstraction for you?
My relationship with abstraction came very naturally. Abstraction is a reference from the real world. In school I was taught to understand the formal relation between humanity and art. I was very interested in this, but when I got to NYC I start to be focused on different problems about society: culture, identity and politics. I wanted to understand my role in society; I start to be more curious about this to understand myself better within the world.
Developing my abstract painting has become very important to me; it is a challenge for me. I want to honor the challenge of abstraction. Painting abstractly has become an expanded way to express my experiences.
I grew up in a family that was very Nigerian. In America, black people are seen in a difficult way. I always listened to my parents saying to me “You are African”, so that I would not forget where I came from. I knew war took me from Nigeria, the place I called home. I have come to understand how a disaster like war can change life. When I arrived in America I didn't have anyone except my parents. What I learnt at school was not discussed at home. In my house we used to talk about international issues. I went to school and talked only about American issues. I grew up in a provincial city. If anything, my experience was about trying to find a way to adapt and survive. I spent my life understanding the codes that existed for me in America. And I spent lot of time bringing two worlds together. These are the realities I had to understand for myself, and in which context I could interact within these spaces.
Action in drawing is essential. I can't think of my painting without drawing. The science of drawing. Drawing that come from real life, like everything else in life. But drawing is just one section of my creative process because I draw when I have the inspiration, and I’m inspired when I see something interesting. My work is very conceptual: I want to be able to do something that may come from a structure and then breaks it. I want to up-end the capitalistic homogeneity that can exist in patterns. Human beings are like machines, but we are not machines. Our experience should not be entirely mechanized by the things that surround us.
I make drawings and more drawings. I will never know when they will come to use. I collect them together and maybe some years later when I have come to understand a drawing it will become a painting. That’s what my drawings are – they are the space for my color. They shape the space, and this is why structure is very important. The structure for me is everything – it is the design. Design is harmony; it is the plan that creates possibility for myself. Possibilities to contemplate reality, and to thinking about my feelings on experience – this is what it means for me to be intellectual and philosophical.
How Malevich's work influenced your work?
I love how the suprematist form and design in Malevich’s work comes from the philosophic reality of his culture and cultural moment. I studied the idea of abstraction in Malevich's suprematism and how it relates to his work. The precision in my drawings have relation to Malevich's particular idea of abstraction in painting. I am looking at the high sense of culture imperative in his work. In my way, I want to do the same and go deep into the idea and philosophy of culture. I want to bring in something new and in a very powerful way that engages my personal experience within a contemporary culture moment.