Artist Blog

Public Artist’s Retrospective in final week at MOCA GA

After 32 years creating public sculpture, Ayokunle Odeleye reflects on the responsibility of art in the public domain

By Rosalind Bentley

Ayokunle Odeleye saw the older woman watching him from across the street, but he kept working.

Years before, he had forged the towering monument “Spirit, Family and Community,” a gleaming bronze sculpture on a corner in the Peoplestown neighborhood. The piece was created as part of the public art program meant to spruce up pockets of Atlanta for the 1996 Olympics.

But it had been a while since the Olympics, and it had been a while since the bronze looked lustrous, so Odeleye (pronounced Oh-da-LAY-yay) was out polishing it.

“Hey, hey, take your hands off that,” Odeleye remembers the older woman yelling at him.

“I’m the artist, I did this,” Odeleye replied, and he pointed to his signature at the base of the piece for emphasis.

“Unhuh, yeah, I don’t care, that’s our art, so get your hands off it,” the woman said.

That’s when Odeleye knew that, tarnished or not, as a work of public art the piece was a success.

“When you do a piece of work that people find valuable and meaningful they protect it,” Odeleye said recently. “And when you’re a public artist you really are a contractor of community identity.”

An artist knows that once he creates a work of art specifically for the public domain — no matter how connected he might feel to the piece — once it’s placed in a community, in many ways it’s not really his anymore, signature or not. As one of the nation’s most prolific public artists, Ayokunle Odeleye is clear on that.

Today begins the final week of a show of his work at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia.

The show “Ayokunle Odeleye: Thirty-Two Years of Public Art” is a retrospective. The sheer scale of most works of public art often prevents putting several pieces in a single dedicated space for a retrospective, outside of perhaps a major sculpture garden. So, many such retrospectives of the art form are done through drawings. This is the case with Odeleye’s show, but it is enlivened by lovely architectural models of nearly every piece in the retrospective, which spans his work from Alaska to Florida, with emphasis on Georgia.

The viewer walks through Odeleye’s career in miniature. There is a glowing bronze oar, meant to memorialize an 1898 massacre in Wilmington, N.C. While the model at MOCA GA is barely 4-feet tall, in Wilmington, where the actual monument stands, there are six such oars, each rising 16 feet. The tiny, sinuous, mahogany model of “Linear Figure” is in its own way as resonant as the 12-foot stainless steel sculpture it inspired, which now stands on the Clayton State University campus in Morrow.

Ironically, Odeleye, who is also an art professor at Kennesaw State University, has done very little gallery work in his career, instead focusing almost exclusively on creating commissioned pieces. Some see it as restrictive since that sort of work must please more viewers, and stakeholders, than the artist. But as a young art student at Howard University in Washington, D.C., in the 1970s, during the height of the Black Power movement, it was drilled into Odeleye that an African-American artist had to carry the burden of representing the underserved. It was also expected that an African-American artist would represent his community visually and positively.

“Ayo came from that school that says art isn’t for art’s sake, it’s done for a reason that is political or social,” said Kevin Cole, a longtime colleague of Odeleye’s and fellow visual artist. “It’s not just about creating for the sake of it, it’s about changing things.”

Looking through the retrospective it’s clear that this principle has guided the projects he has bid for and won, from work for a juvenile detention center in Richmond to an abstract totem in Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn neighborhood. But an artist’s personal passion is not enough for a piece of public art to work, as evidenced by the recent controversies surrounding the Living Walls Project murals and a painting removed from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport after it prompted complaints from viewers. For a piece of public art to truly work it must have community buy-in.

Rather than finding that notion restrictive or repellent, Odeleye seems to thrive on it, going back to a neighborhood again and again to get input from residents and others.

“He goes into these community meetings, not as a fly on the wall but as a willing participant,” said Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, director of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art.” He has a keen and intent ear, and he goes the extra mile to ensure the community’s concerns and voices are infused in each piece.”

Which is what Odeleye did in designing the Peoplestown piece, even though his original vision of the work was something very different than what residents had in mind. But he listened to them. And now, years after its installation, there is a fondness for it on the part of the artist and community.

“You can’t have an elitist attitude,” Odeleye said. “When you come into the public domain, you have a greater responsibility.”


Event Preview

“Ayokunle Odeleye: Thirty-Two Years of Public Art”

10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Today and Tuesday through Sat. Jan. 12; Free; Museum of Modern Art of Georgia, 75 Bennett St., Atlanta, or 404-367-8700;

At the show’s closing event on Jan. 12, Odeleye will be part of a panel discussion with noted sculptors including Maria Artemis and Curtis Patterson, about the responsibilities of the public artist. Discussion begins at 2 p.m. at MOCA GA. Free.


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