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‘My paintings are about questions, provoking dialogue’

‘My paintings are about questions, provoking dialogue’

From architecture to visual art, Abe Odedina, a successful architect and painter, has proven his worth across many creative genres.

He was in Nigeria to stage ‘Walk like a champion’, his first solo exhibition, at ODA Art Gallery, from October 28 to November 18, 2023.

In this interview with Obinna Emelike, the multi-talented Odedina speaks on the exhibition, his works, inspiration, mother’s influence, among others.

Read also: Abe Odedina stages Time to walk like a champion at Oda Art Gallery

Why did it take a long time to stage your first solo exhibition?

Well, this is my first solo exhibition in a gallery. But I have shown paintings in Lagos before, during Art X. I also had a solo presentation in 2019. But there is a difference between a solo presentation at an art fair and a solo exhibition at a gallery. In a real exhibition, there is an opportunity for more depth and it is slightly different. This is my first real exhibition in Lagos and therefore it is a different experience.

But it was at the art fair that I got the first taste of the quality of love for my work in Lagos. The warmth was phenomenal. Friends turned up some of whom I hadn’t seen since school days. I thought I was going to do this every year but then Covid hit us and we lost two years and we had to rethink how we engage the world.

It took all of that time to get here because it is important for me to work with the right people. Yes, I make the paintings but to get them on the wall in the right way requires collaboration with the right people. I was lucky to meet Obida. To cut a long story short, we started talking.

I spent two or three months in Brazil painting. Obida takes time to execute the work and takes his time to exhibit the works in a particular way and not just generic.

Did you abandon architecture for visual art?

Yes, I have left architecture to focus on art. Let me confess, I planned nothing. I was happy being an architect and even as a family, we had to make this decision. I got a lot of support from my family.

My wife and I used to accumulate a lot of artworks in our home in Brixton. So, she thought, “Why don’t we put them in a shop? I had started painting then.

The painting slowly took all the oxygen and if I am enjoying something, I am not going to stop it. My wife said, you seem to be enjoying this.

Fortunately, I got incredible feedback from my work right from the start. One of the big paintings got into the National Art Gallery and it seemed to me that it might be worth the pursuit. I was self-trained. I discovered my technique and attitude to painting but that is how I live my life- make my mistakes, do my own thing and here we are.

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How would you describe your work?

I paint acrylic on plywood possibly because it was a material I was used to working on as an architect. I like the solidity and practicality of working with plywood. If we are honest and historically accurate, images on board happen several hundred years before painting on canvas. In a funny way, I am going back to the roots. I simply do what I would to plywood and it gives me the sort of response that I feel comfortable with. That is how my technique has evolved. I suppose my works are figurative paintings that explore abstract concepts. I am exploring ideas about our common humanity.

While my paintings are true to a certain extent, they are not biographical. But I hope they are emotionally honest. They are personal, but they are not biographical. I am interested in all of us and I like to make paintings that relate to our lives as humans and rather than my own biography.

For me, I explore human concepts and the triumphs of daily life. I am looking for universality; the things that unite all of us. Why do I do this? We tend to forget these things and are so happy to celebrate our differences. I love the things we share.

Would you say that fashion has been influential in your work?

You know the background of West African photography where we turn and we have a backdrop. We are the tableau. We are encouraged to reinvent ourselves and there is an element of fantasy.

The men wear suits. A woman would wear a dress and I try to imbue the necessary feeling that I try to put across.

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Why did you dedicate the exhibition to your mother?

My mother is 96 years old now and she is still alive. Up till when she was 94 in perfect health. Even for the best of us, at 96 years the body begins to slow down a little bit. She is not traveling as much as she used to. I wanted to have a show that she can get to. I realised that she is much more than just giving birth to me. I am the fourth child. At some point, all my siblings had gone to university or lived somewhere else.

Actually, we got very close. She is giving me tools to be the kind of person that I have become. She has handed me the compass that allows me to go through life with a certain confidence in terms of making decisions.

At the core of that, I have always been encouraging people to be who exactly they want to be. If I don’t like it, I won’t do it. I have always wanted to be. I have always wanted to introduce her to my work. She has seen it at Art X. But I want her to be where she could see my recent works and at 96 years, we have to take advantage of every moment. She is amazing, beautiful and clever.

What about your father’s influence?

I got different lessons from my father and mother. If I do a piece of work for my father, it will be as different as our relationship. Maybe that is next, but we lost him many years ago and so that would be a posthumous honour. I want to celebrate my mother while she is still around and it is not a story about me.

What is your work, ‘Walk Like A Champion’ all about?

This is not about swagger or walking around. It is about being your true self. What a champion means to you is completely different from what a champion means to me.

Be true to your inner champion.

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How many works featured in the exhibition?

About 25 paintings. I want the curator to make the choice of what to exhibit.

What about the artwork of a man with a padlocked mouth?

It is not about restriction. As a Yoruba man, and more importantly as an Ijebu man, there is something called discretion. We are in a world of sharing and oversharing and people are not sure what to say, when to say and how to say it. It seems we all want to be part of the conversation. That is just a reminder that there is such a thing as a significant silence. You have to know when to shut up.

That is what the painting is about. It is called Significant Silence. The power of knowing what not to say and not saying things is as powerful as constantly saying things. I am not interested in verbal diarrhea. My paintings are about questions. I am not interested in preaching to anybody. I am interested in provoking dialogue. You must also know when to talk.

What about other paintings?

The monochrome work showing a barber, that probably relates to my father. When you are of a particular age, you start to follow your dad to the barber’s shop. And that is when you begin to learn about the important aspect of humanity. You begin to meet different people from those you meet at home. They could brush your hair in a harsh way, but then you could hear conversations, different from the conversations at home. You begin to understand that the world is bigger than you can understand.

He is standing there with the barber’s chair turning out. This is the beginning of something quite important. There was an awareness at that time. The barber’s shop is a meeting place for the community not different from where women plait their hair. In a way, these are the kinds of moments that I make my work about. The triumphs and tragedies of daily life, that is what my work is about. I am not interested in painting big historical moments.

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What is the African connection in your work?

In Salvador, Bahia, there is something about the veneration of the Orisha. I know I can find this in Lagos. That is what inspired my paintings. My colours are inspired by the people of the orisha.