Abe Odedina is in his Salvador studio. There’s a fresco of a serpent above the doorway between this room and the kitchen: “A sort of superintendent!” he quips. As the beginning of a conversation about myth and the visual language of symbolism, it’s an apt opener. Brixton-based Odedina has been visiting Brazil since 2003, when he and his wife were invited to stay with friends working on a literary festival there. The couple fell in love with the place “instantly”, he explains, and that first encounter was followed by regular visits. “We did these epic drives across the country down the coastal motorway, trying to get to grips in some way with this huge country. We stopped off in Salvador, where we had a wonderful time and found this house.” He gestures to the walls around him. “It needed a lot of work,” he continues—from the tone of his voice, though, it sounds like a prospect he relished rather than resented. Odedina is a trained architect, and the first Brazilian chapter of his life marked “the transformation from an architect who paints” to an artist proper.
At the end of every calendar year, the couple try to spend a couple of months in their South American home-away-from-home. “It’s a great way to write off the winter. It’s roasting,” he says, nodding to the morning sunlight streaming through the windows. Then again, “we’re here to work, really. It’s a fantastic place to work.” And work they do. Odedina’s prolific. Paintings—acrylic on wooden boards—jostle for space in the studio behind him, stacked 10-deep against walls and hung one above the other upon them, too. While his practice is intuitive, the subjects imbued with a “life of their own”, he’s keen to stress that it’s not a question of “flowing around aimlessly in an uncontrolled way.” Rather, “my art is a way of processing life. The self-expression which can loom large [in other artists’ work], like ‘let’s keep looking in a mirror’ is not interesting to me—because that’s inevitable.” All art is self-portraiture, I suggest. All writing, autobiography. “Precisely. So, I don’t find I need to concentrate on that subconscious thing because, well, by virtue of being subconscious, it appears whether I summon it or not.”
Rather than looking inwardly then, Odedina casts outwards for material to manifest something like a recurring formula. “I’m fairly committed to the human form, which is probably pretty obvious from looking at my work. The paintings are allegorical, and what I’m trying to do is implicate these characters I’ve created into ideas. It’s a question of somehow getting them to be embodied in a notion which is often fairly difficult to get hold of, but I try to make ambiguity concrete.”
A self-described ‘folk’ artist, Odedina paints a cast of characters pulled from Haitian Voodoo, Brazilian spiritual traditions, Greek myths and the street. Their particular source, it seems, interests the artist less than their universal legibility. “If I’m destroying paintings before they’re finished, it tends to be because the message is getting too obscure.” Obscurity, however, should not be confused with specificity—something which characterises his tableaus. A Capable Girl sees a woman with pigtails holding a tiger over her shoulders, a blocky briefcase at her side. In Peaceable Kingdom, a male figure painted in black wrestles with a white octopus while look- ing calmly out of his world and into ours. There’s something of the Renaissance portrait about many of the compositions, I suggest: subjects are depicted in distinct positions and situations, holding objects or with animals chosen to tell us something about them. While it’s central to Odedina’s conceit that his human subjects are recognisably just that, it’s equally crucial that their bodies “are abstracted, so you can imagine it as your history, or anybody’s.”
For Odedina, it’s what we share—both culturally and individually—that offers a richer seam to mine than what we don’t. “I try and find the objects that we have collectively invested with some sort of power. We all know what a ladder does, for instance, and so those objects [and their significances] can be universal.” After all, the grand themes of power, sex, love, fury, envy and revenge which pepper his oeuvre are eternally compelling because they’re deeply human. Stories we tell again and again find a resonance in the most implausibly specific circumstances, allowing us to see ourselves as part of a wider narrative of human experience in our darkest moments. Compare the undignified mess of a teenage love affair with Romeo and Juliet, for instance, and the heartbreak seems a lot more poignant.
These huge ideas, however beguiling, require a framework to be made manifest. The impulse to craft one, luckily, seems to be “part of our essential make-up.” While a Nigerian Yoruba tradition might rep- resent the chaotic power of the natural world through Oya, the Tempest goddess and a favourite motif of Odedina’s, Christians could look instead to the story of Noah’s Ark. The artist is happy to lift from both—in fact, their potential for symbiosis is what drives his practice. Although precise stories and their symbolic languages vary, the urgent need for visual and linguistic shorthands remains consistent across cul- tures and continents. Once a story or a character has been compounded into myth, their visual manifestation can be combined with others. It is this palimpestic process of layering, and this zooming from the micro to the macro, which drives Odedina.
“I’m interested in the hybrid, and in the syncretic development of religions.” Syncretism, the process by which religions and philosophies blend and amalgamate as they encounter each other, is as old as humanity itself—and something which Odedina suggests is “usually a positive thing.” Of course, certain traditions on which the artist draws regularly have a common ancestor in Christianity, violently imposed upon native populations in Africa and the South American colonies where its people were implanted by the West under slavery. Yet, “some of the most fabulous [Nigerian] Yoruba gods have survived the hundreds of years of horrific trauma. Part of that is their versatility. Part of it is the robustness of the philosophies which govern their behaviour.” Odedina is now working towards a solo exhibition at LA’s Underground Museum in 2019.
Throughout history, organically or under duress, worldviews have collided. Frequently, neither is extinguished—rather, a new system emerges which reconciles this part of one with that of the other. This phenomenon is not necessarily testament to a human tolerance of difference; rather, it speaks to the extraordinary (and paradoxical) universality of concepts birthed by the hyper-local. “It’s not magic; it’s us. The marvellous isn’t in a different category of experience: we dip in and out of it every day. The right phone call or conversation can plunge you into it, just as the wrong one can wrench you out.”