In the pursuit of an artistic career, there are those who take the predictable path — obtaining the right degrees, qualifications, apprenticeships, and jobs, while others blaze their own way. Neither route guarantees success, and you can only hope that your talent and hard work will be recognized.
If you’re in the latter group, perhaps it took a life transition, experience, or conscious decision to stop calling your artistic pursuits a hobby before you set out on your way. Add this to the trial and error of developing your craft and style, and it can make for a long and unpredictable path.
However, the bright side of taking an alternative course is that it allows you to keep twisting and turning and picking up overlooked jewels other people haven’t picked up. Multi-disciplinary artist, Daniel Oduntan, who focuses on photography, film, and music composition, knows this well. The self-taught artist navigates the daily challenges of living and creating with dyslexia. “Living with dyslexia forces you to find a way,” says Oduntan. “You must navigate different routes, and there are no shortcuts.”
In 2012, the London-based creative was nominated for Best Emerging British Artist by the Mica Gallery. And, in January 2017, he will create a commissioned piece for the Victoria and Albert Museum’s (V&A) “You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970” exhibition, which documents the Black Panthers Movement in the United Kingdom.
We recently spoke with 32-year-old Oduntan about teaching himself photography, the challenge of creating with dyslexia, and the benefits of having to take the longer route.
You attended the London College of Music, then worked for a time in construction. What led you to ultimately teach yourself photography and become a visual artist?
I tried everything in my power not be an artist, so I went into construction. I wanted to become a surveyor, but it was the height of the recession, which made this difficult. As I began to see the world through a different lens, it manifested itself in pictures. While on construction sites, I would take shots on my camera phone, and upload the images to Flickr and Tumblr to document my activities. The response was really positive. People were surprised that I was capturing these shots from my camera phone. I was also inspired by self-trained artists, like Gordon Parks and Quentin Tarantino. I knew it was time to start shooting on a real camera, and, to my luck, my friend told me that her university was getting rid of materials and camera gear. I didn’t have money to buy a digital camera, so I was happy to claim the heavy, analog Zenit 35mm camera. It helped that I wasn’t a complete stranger to cameras as my mom gave me an analog Canon as a child.
YouTube became my teacher. I would watch tutorials, then go out and shoot friends. I also watched The Art of Photography by Ted Forbes, which discusses photography philosophies, and introduced me to new photographers. Many times, I would develop my film at the drugstore, and everything would be black. It was a process of trial and error. So, I’d re-watch the tutorials, and shoot again. After a few months, I got comfortable using my camera, and my appetite was whet to document the world around me.
When did you realize you were onto something?
I knew shooting analog photography would only take me so far. If I wanted to compete for commissions, I’d have to go digital. With limited funds, I asked myself, How can I stay in this, and still progress in my art form? Through online research, I discovered there was a way to use new technology with old technology, and I could get the best of both worlds. For example, a digital Canon lens only mounts to a digital Canon camera, but an analog Minolta lens can mount to a digital Sony camera. This was my solution. I turned to YouTube tutorials once again, and I learned how to edit pictures through trial and error using Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. On a whim, I entered Mica Gallery’s photography competition in 2012. Despite turning in materials late, I was nominated for Best Emerging British Artist.
You also taught yourself videography. What was your learning process there?
In many ways, television raised me. As a dyslexic person, I’m not going to sit down and read. If you can’t read well, your next form of education is what you hear and see. So, I watched YouTube tutorials on cutting demo software like Adobe Premiere Pro, and developed a good sense to cut a scene here and edit there. It was an experimental process until I got it right. With my documentary work, I’m always looking for subtle nuances, while at the same time exploring creative ways to bring the soul of a narrative to the forefront.
Why did you decide to teach yourself rather than going to a design school? And how have you honed your craft?
Believe me, I would have loved to go to school for photography and videography. It would have saved me the headache of all my trial and error. But I’m from a working-class background, and I didn’t have the funds to go back to school or take out a loan. I had no choice but to be a self-trained artist.
In addition to learning through doing and YouTube tutorials, I surround myself with mentors, like photographer Eddie Otchere and filmmaker Dan Fontanelli. Eddie has redefined hip-hop photography by capturing the personalities of artists from Nas and Jay Z to the Wu-Tang Clan and the Notorious B.I.G. In The Icons Of Wu-Tang Clan by Dan, Eddie explains how he came to shoot every Wu-Tang member as well as his process in using print to memorialize the subject. I believe representation in art matters, so I’m constantly picking up new tips from them.
Their criticism was my greatest learning tool. When people you trust critique your work, and it comes from a good place, you grow.
In publishing, there can be a stigma around self-published authors. How do people react when you tell them you’re a self-taught artist?
A lot of people from the fine art world and otherwise appreciate my hustle and natural ability. And, to be honest, I’m proud to be a self-taught artist.
When did you discover that you’re dyslexic, and how does this impact your art?
I always struggled more than my two sisters in school, but didn’t know why. I discovered I was dyslexic late in university. I’d hide my writing with my arm, and would scribble shapes over words. At times, I even misspelled my name, and had difficulty with the structure of language. My dyslexic friend at university encouraged me to get tested, and the university arranged for an all-expense, paid assessment. When my results came back, the doctor was impressed by my achievements, and shocked that I’d made it this far without support for my dyslexia. Receiving this information was a huge weight off my shoulders, and I felt like I was given a badge that says, “You are dyslexic, not stupid.”
Living with dyslexia forces you to find a way. You must navigate different routes, and there are no shortcuts. Instead of going from point A to point B, as a dyslexic person, you have to go from A to Z to P to T to R just to get to B. Everything takes longer to finish. My eyes hurt. My head hurts. I have to take frequent breaks at the computer, and it gets frustrating.
The same is true when I create art. It sounds strange, but when I hear sound, I see shapes, colors, and images. I started pursuing still and moving images when I discovered their creative similarities to music. Most people don’t experience these nuances because they’ve never had to. Dyslexia can be an obsession, but it helps me focus and get the most out of art.
What advice do you have for people living and creating with dyslexia?
I believe it’s important to acknowledge what you can do well. Dyslexia has nothing to do with your intelligence. To use a driving analogy, it’s frustrating for anyone to be stuck in traffic or encounter roadblocks en route to your destination. You’re going to be angry, and you may even experience road rage if you’re running late for an appointment. This is what it feels like when you’re dyslexic. A negative trait of dyslexia can be paranoia, and, in this example, you’d start telling yourself, People will think I can’t drive, and that I’m stupid. I encourage you to acknowledge your frustration, but be brave. Don’t let living with dyslexia be the rest of your story. There are benefits of taking the longer route, and you should embrace this. Find your tribe of people who understand you and complement your skill set.
You started an art house collective called, Soul Labels. What is the inspiration behind this?
Soul Labels curates and produces content across various media platforms, from film, fashion, and exhibitions to workshops and experimental A/V projects. It’s a mix between a record label and a museum, with underground artists at the helm. I believe that soul is about being true to yourself, and artists should be true to themselves. Anything in its full honesty is soulful, and I seek to create a space for artists to re-invent the way we engage with art.
We recently wrapped up Palm Wine Beats Live! Vol. 3 of 5, which takes my Nigerian mixtapes, which are unique in their cinematic feel and historical depth, and brings them to life for one day. Each volume is an attempt to explore a different period of Nigeria’s music from the viewpoint of its evolving diaspora.
My vision is for Soul Labels to become an auction house of sorts to help subculture artists break into the fine art world on their own terms. This could be accomplished through funding, sponsorships, and by issuing pieces of work regularly like a book, painting, song, or other commission-based work.