A complicated story from Duke’s history has inspired visiting artist Odili Donald Odita for the wall painting he created with three painting assistants this summer at the Nasher Museum. Most of Duke University’s campus, including Duke Chapel and Cameron Indoor Stadium, was designed by African-American architect Julian Francis Abele. He never set foot on campus before he died in 1950, however, because of segregation and Jim Crow laws.
“With this installation,” Odita writes, “I wish to pay attention to the various qualities of action and event in color in the way that Mr. Abele’s highly tuned attention to historical detail and his fine sense of texture elevated his grand designs at Duke. In tandem, the wall painting will utilize a constant and continual push of figure-ground relationships where forms live and breathe in direct affirmation to their immediate surrounding.”
Odili Donald Odita’s full artist statement about the wall painting, titled Shadow and Light (For Julian Francis Abele):
In title and concept, this work is made in gesture and commemoration to architect Julian Francis Abele. Until events in 1986, there was little knowledge of Julian Francis Abele’s direct hand in designing most of the campus of Duke University as chief designer of the Philadelphia-based Horace Trumbauer architectural firm. In 1902, Julian Francis Abele was the first African American to earn a degree in architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Fine Arts, and received many prizes during his studies including being elected class president of the school’s Architectural Society in his senior year at the university.
In 1906, Julian Abele was hired by Horace Trumbauer to join his architectural firm based on Trumbauer’s notice of Abele’s award winning work at the University of Pennsylvania. By 1909, Abele became the firm’s chief designer. In his capacity as chief designer, Abele would design over 250 buildings, including Harvard University’s Widener Memorial Library, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Philadelphia’s Free Library. Tobacco millionaire James Buchanan Duke was a Trumbauer client (they built his residences in New York City and in Somerville, NJ) and would later hire the firm in 1924 to transform and expand upon an existing college in Durham that become Duke University. Abele had his hand in designing most of Duke, including its library, the football stadium, gym, medical school, religion school, hospital, faculty houses, the Cameron Indoor Stadium and Duke Chapel.
Surprisingly, it was a letter to the student newspaper in 1986, written by Susan Cook, a Duke student and a great-grandniece of Julian Abele, that brought light to Abele’s central role in designing Duke University.
Duke students were infuriated by the school’s investments in (apartheid South Africa), and built shanties in front of the university’s winsome stone chapel, which was modeled after England’s Canterbury Cathedral. A student wrote an editorial for the college paper complaining about the shacks, which she said violated “our rights as students to a beautiful campus.”
Susan Cook wrote in to the student newspaper contending that Abele would have supported the divestment rally in front of his beautiful chapel. Her great grand-uncle “was a victim of apartheid in this country” yet the university itself was an example “of what a black man can create given the opportunity.” Cook asserted that Abele had created their splendid campus, but had never set foot on it due to the Jim Crow laws of the segregated South.
Shadow and Light makes reference to this conditionality of Julian Abele’s history at Duke University. His was a story placed in the shadow of history based on the values of an American culture at that time. Through a circumstantial moment of strife coupled with familial will, Abele’s full legacy at Duke University again saw the light of day. With this installation, I wish to pay attention to the various qualities of action and event in color in the way that Mr. Abele’s highly tuned attention to historical detail and his fine sense of texture elevated his grand designs at Duke. In tandem, the wall painting will utilize a constant and continual push of figure-ground relationships where forms live and breathe in direct affirmation to their immediate surrounding.
Odili Donald Odita
Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University
July 31, 2015.
TOP: Alan Prazniak, chief painting assistant, works on the mural designed and supervised by artist Odili Donald Odita. Prazniak is working on the mural with painting assistants Jenna Pirello and Megan Bartley-Matthews. Photos by J Caldwell at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.
More images from the installation can be viewed on our flickr channel.
Odili Donald Odita, Shadow and Light (For Julian Francis Abele), 2015. Acrylic latex paint on wall, dimensions variable. Commissioned by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
Both murals by Odili Donald Odita are commissioned by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Both murals are made possible by the Office of the Vice Provost for the Arts and Council for the Arts Visiting Artist Program of Duke University; the Winifred Johnson Clive Foundation; and Elizabeth Hitchins Quigley and L. Matthew Quigley. Additional generous support is provided by Nasher Annual Fund donors.