Orun, Orisha, tattoos and tea : At home with Abe Odedina

Entering the home of Nigerian artist Abe Odedina, feels like crossing through dimensions of time.

Located in South East London, the traditional semi-detached house looks quite normal from the outside. But on stepping in, you are immersed into a cross between Narnia, an African treasure chest and the dwelling of an ancient high priest.

His home is a plethora of traditional and modern art pieces, spiritual and ritual items, photographs of the past and present, and the odd cat, which scurries here and there. There are masks which hang on the walls with curved chins, jagged teeth and eyes that gape open dully. Statues of two-headed dogs line the shelves. Voodoo dolls peek out from corners.

Our ‘Brixton Baroque’ host Abe is an interesting and fascinating man - both to look at and listen to. Margitte-loving, bowler hat-wearing, he enjoys discussing symbols and phenomena in the world and how spirits, mysticisms and religion still work within our modern life.

A wonderful mix of contradictions, he is a tall, athletically slim-built man who is covered in tattoos from head to toe! His fingers are covered with hearts, and numbers, and symbols of all different origins. His soft-spoken, refined and downright posh English accent throws you. The Adidas Stan Smith sneakers and jewellery-clad fingers show his youth and playfulness - he is a rather trendy man - and only his grey-haired beard and wise eyes reveal how old he might really be.

 © Claudia Leisinger

© Claudia Leisinger


Formerly a successful architect, Abe changed his professional path after an enlightening trip to Brazil which he refers to his ‘Damascus moment, like St Paul’s conversion’. He transformed from ‘an architect that likes painting to a painter that makes buildings occasionally.’

But what caused this change? It was his first encounter with the òrìṣàs (pronounced ‘orishas’) in Northeast Brazil. These are divine beings of the other world (òrun) who are manifested as humans in our planetary world according to some traditional Yoruba, Caribbean and South American customs.

This mystical spiritualism from the ancient world moves and inspires him, yet he does not believe in ‘fossiling’ such belief systems. He wants to make them contemporary and avoid shrouding them in obscure mysticism. This is evident in the figures within his EYE TO EYE body of work.

The paintings that surround us in Abe’s home show women swallowing knives, men holding doves, dentists clutching gleaming teeth. They are fascinating, celebratory and yet dark. Traditional spiritualism is often misunderstood and misrepresented, yet one cannot deny its attraction and craftsmanship. The artistry, history and culture within an Abe Odedina painting is easily appealing to people of different cultures and backgrounds.

He doesn’t think his Christianity clashes with these other deities. ‘Growing up in Nigeria, it was possible to be a Christian and yet pay diligence to ancient gods and spirits,’ he tells me. And it seems his openness to exploring the world through stories is how he celebrates his Ashe, the life-force that runs through all things, living and inanimate.                

  ©   Claudia Leisinger

© Claudia Leisinger

© Abe Odedina, courtesy of Ed Cross Fine Art

Abe will be showing at London Art Fair, 2017, JAN 18 - 22 2017

Header image © Claudia Leisinger

This interview was published on TRUE Africa