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Hanes Visiting Artist Eto Otitigbe lectures on art's role in social justice

University of Virginia Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, Höweler + Yoon, Eto Otitigbe. Photo courtesy of Alan Karchmer.

New York-based polymedia artist Eto Otitigbe was selected as this semester's Hanes Visiting Artist and offered a virtual lecture to the UNC community on Thursday. 

Every semester since 1983, the Hanes Visiting Artist Lecture Committee has invited a series of prominent artists to speak to the UNC community. 

Otitigbe got his start by studying mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Engineering got me interested in design," Otitigbe said. "Then design got me interested in art. Today, I pull from my education and experience in these fields to inform my creative practice.”

After graduating from MIT, Otitigbe studied product design at Stanford University and creative practice from the University of Plymouth. He now works as an assistant professor of sculpture in the art department at Brooklyn College and as the director of the Turnbull Gallery in New York.

His work has been featured in exhibits across the globe, such as "Bronx Calling: The Second AIM Biennial."

Gesche Würfel, an assistant professor in the UNC Department of Art and Art History, chose Otitigbe to speak because of his contribution to the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia. 

“I met Eto about two years ago at a residency at MASS MoCA in southern Massachusetts, and I was very impressed with his work,” Würfel said. “We stayed in touch, and I decided to invite him because I think the memorial and his work are very moving.”

Würfel said she finds Otitigbe's work to be especially interesting due to its interdisciplinary and thoughtful nature.

“The ways that he addresses issues of race, technology and power in his work that includes sculpture, public art, installation and performance are deeply thought through,” Würfel said. “The viewer has to spend time exploring the piece, and his intention is not obvious at first sight.”

UNC first-year Erin Rogers attended the event to learn about Otitigbe's creative process.

“His art is really abstract, and I was curious as to why he decided to make those creative choices while also making statements about social justice,” Rogers said.

Otitigbe said much of his inspiration comes from the process of researching his subjects.

“I usually look to art history as well as disciplines outside of visual art, like architecture and biology, to develop content for my projects,” he said. “I use this information to form a visual language. It's an iterative process.”

In the lecture, he spoke of his various collaborative and individual projects, which show the intersections between race, art and science, including his sculpture “Becoming Visible,” a piece memorializing the life and death of Trayvon Martin among other Black victims of police brutality.

Rogers appreciated the honesty Otitigbe brought to his lecture, especially during his anecdotes of race and social justice.

“Hearing an artist talk about their own work, coming from a place of their experiences, is something that can’t be replaced,” she said. “If we can prioritize public art, and allow art to be a way to give people a voice, I think that we can make a lot of real change.”

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