Healing Art - KSU Prof's art helps heal racial wounds

Healing Art

Two questions posed by a mentor have guided the artistic career of Ayokunle Odeleye, a KSU art…

Georgia (Jul 27, 2009)

Two questions posed by a mentor have guided the artistic career of Ayokunle Odeleye, a KSU art professor and sculptor who has created more than two dozen works of public art over the past 19 years.
    Sculptor and former Howard University professor Ed Love asked him: “What is your obligation and responsibility to your people and your work? How is [your art] important to anyone but you?”
    A memorial park and sculpture Odeleye and his partners conceived to help the residents of Wilmington, N.C., heal wounds from the racial violence that erupted there in 1898 answers both questions powerfully and affirmatively.   
    While the impressive sculpture acknowledges a dark day when an angry white mob killed more than 20 blacks, drove hundreds more from their homes, burned the African-American newspaper office and overthrew the city government, the memorial reflects the forces of reconciliation that exist in Wilmington today.
    Odeleye, who specializes in creating works of public art in metal and wood, brought his enormous talent and the sensibilities of his African and Southern ancestry to bear on delivering what the memorial planners wanted: a public space where residents could remember, contemplate and heal together so the town can move forward.
    “I had dreams and people were talking to me in my sleep,” Odeleye said, describing why he stuck with the project despite the more than 10 years between proposal and project completion. “These were my ancestors.”
    Together with architects Jon and Marianne Weinberg-Benson, Odeleye designed an environmental sculpture on a 330-by-300-foot triangular track of land that serves as the gateway from Interstate 40 to a newly developed area of downtown Wilmington. The design, which they submitted in 1998, was chosen from among 66 proposals. Land clearances, fund raising, rescaling the project and negotiating with public authorities delayed the project’s completion. 
    Dedicated last November, a few days shy of the 110th anniversary of the uprising, the 1898 Memorial Park Odeleye’s team created is comprised of six 16-foot sculptures that represent paddles – each weighing 1,000 pounds – made of carbon steel tubing, stainless steel bar bracing and sheet bronze skin. The memorial also includes two arched sculptural structures designed to hold the curved bronze plates with engraved inscriptions recounting the historical event. 
    According to Odeleye, the paddles, which he fabricated in his Stone Mountain, Ga., studio and transported with an assistant on a special open-bed trailer nearly 400 miles, symbolize the presence of water as a component of the spiritual belief system of black Americans in the 1800s. 
    “In many African traditions, water is believed to be a medium for the transition between the worlds of the living and the dead,” he explained. “The use of paddle imagery memorializes not only the destruction of a community, but the collective coexistence of the two races at a unique time in history.”
    Odeleye said he spent countless hours examining the proposed site, trolling Wilmington’s archives and talking to descendants of riot victims and perpetrators alike. “I walked in those communities where people still live and heard stories suggesting there were far more than 20 people killed,” he said. “People said the river ran red for days.”                               
    The crux of the uprising, Odeleye concluded, was the refusal by a group of white residents to accept blacks serving in government, a development made possible by a coalition of the town’s progressive white leaders and its thriving black middle class. Just before the November 1898 elections, white Democrats conducted a propaganda campaign against moderate whites and blacks that escalated into a violent rampage. It took an order from the governor to the Wilmington Light Infantry and the Naval Reserves to restore peace. 
    “It was the only coup d’etat in American history, and it created a domino effect for the creation of Jim Crow legislation throughout the South,” said Odeleye, for whom the historical significance of the project sets it apart from others he has done. 
    The 1898 Memorial Park has been very well received by all races, said Bertha Todd, co-chair of the 1998 Centennial Committee, whose work led to the creation of the Memorial Foundation that raised funds for the project.
    “It wasn’t easy convincing the descendants of some of the perpetrators that this was not about finger-pointing, but a chance for the community to confront its past,” Todd said. “People had whispered about the incident for 100 years, but never really talked about it. It took a whole lot of one-on-one conversations to convince people that this was our chance to come together to heal.”  
To learn more about professor Odeleye, visit
http://www.kennesaw.edu/visual_arts/Personnel/OdeleyeA/index.shtml To view more of his sculptures and public art projects, visit



A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its nearly 43,000 students. With 11 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu