Expressing the human condition through color

Painter Odili Donald Odita discussed how color can express different racial identities at an Ezra Stiles Master’s Tea on Tuesday.
Painter Odili Donald Odita discussed how color can express different racial identities at an Ezra Stiles Master’s Tea on Tuesday. Photo by Jacob Geiger.

Contrary to his appearance, an artist dressed in a monochromatic scheme of dark blue denim spoke about the expressive range of color at an Ezra Stiles Master’s Tea on Tuesday.

Painter Odili Donald Odita, former visiting critic in painting at the School of Art, spoke to an audience of roughly 20 about his ideas on color and art, and how they have evolved through his life experiences. Color, in its pure form or transformed by shapes and patterns, can express the diversity of human experiences and cultures, Odita said. He explained that he paints to explore how to negotiate the coexistence of those who are different in ethnic, emotional and other ways.

Odita’s paintings feature bright blocks of color in various patterns, from zigzagging parallel lines to triangles and other geometric patterns, he said.

Odita said he sees color as a way to express diversity. Black and white can be a binary way of looking at the world, with shades of grey as subtle but more “noncommittal” than color. Color is another layer of expression that introduces the identity of an object — the red color of an apple, for example, which can be transformed by its relationship to other colors in the environment. Through color, Odita proposes that multiple cultures can coexist in one space, whether in harmonious or disruptive ways.

“The color bands are the voices, energies and thoughts of people,” Odita said. “The separate colors are people themselves.”

Odita told the audience of childhood experiences that influenced the primary themes in his artwork. As a native Nigerian who fled to Ohio before the Nigerian civil war, Odita said he developed a dual identity that displaced his sense of home and made him think about how to reconcile his African and American cultures. Going to flea markets and garage sales exposed him to the texture of ephemera and the nature of time, memory and nostalgia, a sensitivity he said he uses in his approach to color. He added that in Columbus, Ohio, he saw many houses painted in colors like pink and purple, which he took for granted until he saw primarily white houses while in college in Vermont.

“Every house was painted white with green or black shutters [in Vermont],” Odita said. “That was like seeing a meteor in the ground.”

Odita also said he has learned that edges and frames shape understandings of reality, both artistic and political. In the Western modernist aesthetic, the reality of a painting typically stays within its four edges and anything outside the frame does not exist, he said. Odita said he wonders whether the modernist rejection of reality outside the borders of a painting by extension denies the reality of people outside the Western world, such as Africans, adding that he attempts to prompt viewers to think about the world beyond the canvas by depicting thick slanting lines of color that appear to extend beyond the four edges and considering the architecture of the buildings in which he displays large-scale installations.

Odita also spoke about the architectural revisions of Ezra Stiles College, commenting that the new design pays tribute to the original architecture while adding a playful character through angles and allowing light and air in places such as the music practice rooms and dance studio.

“Those cubicles could be traps if not for those new passages that allow for sound, energy [and] life to go through those places,” Odita added.

Luca Lum ’14, a visiting student from Singapore, said she found Odita’s artistic process informative for her own photography.

“You can get anxious about resolving a work, but [Odita] works in a way that’s open to space, changes and human interactions,” Lum said.

Ryan Cavataro ’14 said he was impressed by Odita’s inclusive approach to the artistic process, explaining that he considers all influences from the architecture to the sociopolitical implications of the art itself and the space that contains it.

Odita’s work has been most recently featured at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, the New Orleans Museum of Art and the 20th Avenue subway station in Brooklyn.

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