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view article on | Published October 08, 2015
As part of Nasher10, a celebration of the first decade and beyond, the Nasher Museum commissioned two large-scale murals by abstract painter Odili Donald Odita. His wall painting inside the Nasher Museum’s Mary D.B.T. Semans Great Hall, Shadow and Light (For Julian Francis Abele), is inspired by the African-American architect who designed most of Duke’s campus. Odita’s wall painting visually connects the Nasher Museum to downtown Durham, where he painted a second mural on the Foster Street wall of the Downtown Durham YMCA, 218 W. Morgan Street. That painting, entitled Time Bridge, was inspired by the city of Durham, which is, according to the artist, “a city that has an awareness of the complexity of its individual interests, and at the same time is open to allow those interests to thrive together as a community.” Time Bridge is a temporary exhibition, on view through summer 2019.
Odita was born in 1966 in Enugu, Nigeria, and lives and works in Philadelphia. His abstract paintings explore ways to trigger memory and address the human condition through color, pattern and design.
“We were very proud to bring Odili Donald Odita to Duke to kick off the celebration of our amazing first decade and the decades to come,” said Sarah Schroth, Mary D.B.T. and James H. Semans Director of the Nasher Museum. “His beautiful, abstract wall paintings demonstrate a rare use of color and pattern executed through a rigorous process. Odita’s colors reflect his vision from his travels around the world. His painting inside the museum will visually connect with a monumental wall painting in downtown Durham, symbolizing our enthusiastic commitment to the community.”
Both of Odita’s mural projects inspired educational initiatives and public programs that have strengthened the museum’s ties to Duke and the community in new ways.
In a partnership with Durham School of the Arts, the Nasher Museum created Nasher Teens, a group of high school art students who served as tour guides and educated the public about Odita and his murals.
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
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.