Abe Odedina is a phenomenal self-taught artist who was a successful architect before a trip to Brazil in 2007 sparked his creativity to become a visual artist. He describes himself as a folk artist and his art is richly inspired by the African spiritual beliefs, philosophi­es, ritual, music and arts. His painting delight in the use of colour and imaginativ­e pictorial statement. These qualities are rooted in the tradition of expressive figurative paintings that can be found in the streets in cities like Lagos, Salvador, or Port-auPrince adorning the sides of lorries, on the wall of temples, beer parlour, love motels, vulcanizer­s and more. Abe who recently returned to Lagos after a very long time to exhibit at the just concluded Art X fair spoke to FUNKE BABS-KUFEJI on his journey as an artist and his experience on coming home to his motherland.

What was the pivotal moment you turned your back on architectu­re and decided to start painting?

I never turned my back on architectu­re, because that makes it sound like one dramatic damascene moment. It was more a gradual developmen­t. I got slowly recalibrat­ed while I was in Brazil and it really was a number of experience­s. It took a while but it was all centered around the richness of the popular culture particular­ly around the veneration of the Orisha. It was so surprising that these gods that I was aware of, that seemed to be figures from the past were very much alive in Brazil. And it wasn’t so much about direct worship, it was the extraordin­ary range of art, expression, music and painting and the way it affected Brazilians in their daily life that really inspired me. It just seemed to suggest untold riches of expression. I enjoyed being an architect but it seemed that perhaps looking back it would need a more direct expression to respond to these extraordin­ary sensations that I seemed to be somehow aware of. It happened very naturally, there was never a point of departure, it happened so effortless­ly and naturally.

What is your response to the term ‘’African Art’’

There are a number of responses. On one hand you understand perfectly why that definition of ‘African art’ makes sense in terms of a factual descriptio­n of what an African artist might be. But on the other hand it’s a large continent with 54 different countries and many artistic traditions so beyond being a short hand for describing the efforts of these group. If it is seen as a style then it is rather problemati­c because that will be a very limiting thing. We know for art that this category is used for artist for historical and marketing reasons. So as long as we understand that it is simply a short hand and we don’t allow it to limit who we are or begin to see it as something that is prescribed, then I am okay with it. But if it goes beyond that, its rather problemati­c because there is such a wide range of expression and we must make sure that this definition­s isn’t a limiting thing but a starting point. And I hope a time will come where we are just described as artists.

You just had a very successful showing at ART X Lagos, how does it compare to other exhibition­s or fairs you have attended around the world?

I can’t claim to be an efficient authority of all the fairs in the world but it is quite clear to me that the Art X art fair was of the highest caliber. In terms of an artistic enterprise, it seemed to me to be as good as anything anywhere in the world and that was evident to see. But beyond that it may have had the extra ingredient, which is the X factor that made it a very special occasion. There was a lot of love and camaraderi­e there. In my particular case there was an element of reunion with lots of friends I hadn’t seen for a while. New friends and old friends. I also met a lot of collectors and it was the start of an integratio­n and understand­ing of the very vibrant discrimina­ting Nigerian art scene and I was delighted to be part of it.

Tell us a bit about your experience returning to Lagos after a very long time?

Well my time here has been wonderful. It was about as good as one might hope. Leading up to it, my team and I were tired of the practical things of getting the paintings ready and shipping them down and all the things that came before our arrival, but when we got here, we were hit by a torrent of love and support and it was overwhelmi­ng. It started before the fair; it went on every single day of the fair. I saw people I hadn’t seen since primary and secondary school, made new friends. It was absolutely amazing as well as seeing family. I have to say it was one of the rather important times in my life where everything came together. What it’s made quite clear is that, it was the start of something and we will definitely be coming back and trying to do as much in Nigeria as we can.

Lets talk about your tattoos, you are covered in them, are they a reflection of your art?

I suppose that’s one way to put it but I’d much rather see all my artistic outputs as a function of a life philosophy in which the way I make buildings when I was an architect was informed by this. My tattoos seem to stem from the same source of inspiratio­n my paintings does as well. In every single instance it is a way to process experience. This is what I think artist do and the medium is a material. We are all trying to process life and express that process in some way. Whether by making buildings, singing, tattooing yourself or many other sort of expression­s, it is part of a continuum. It is not a separate thing; it ties in with everything else I do. It predates my paintings but there are many similariti­es with the impulse and interestin­gly there are actually many similariti­es with the way I made buildings.

How would you describe your fashion style?

I have never really thought about it but this as well is another expression that ties into a life’s philosophy. I tend to go for things that make me feel comfortabl­e. I see human beings including myself as cultural beings and the only thing interestin­g about clothes is the cultural expression you are making with them and its not something separate but I rely on being comfortabl­e rather than any other external factors. There is utility and practicali­ty in the way I dress. I have always thought there is a strong relationsh­ip between utility , beauty and style and that perhaps underlines everything I do.

Finally what advice do you have for young emerging artists in Nigeria?

I don’t want to set myself up as a sage. I will say we should be artists because we have something to express. The advice I will give is to turn up, work hard and to have faith in your own expression­s. In my way of thinking, life trumps art and it is important to live an honest life and to find ways in which to express that. It will be important for any true artist to find their true calling, to have their own sense of values and principles and see how this can inform their art. I think it is important that there isn’t a template for being an artist because that will be a sad shame. Hard work is also very important, a sense of integrity too. But speaking about Nigerian artists in particular, I would urge people to look at the wonderful traditions that we all inherited and to perhaps explore the wonderful inspiratio­n that is available from that as well as being free to be inspired from all over the world. It is a conscious process and I would encourage a generosity of spirit and open expression.

It is important for any true artist to find their true calling, to have their own sense of values and principles and see how this can inform their art.

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