Magdalene Odundo: Vessels with Attitude

Magdalene Odundo: Vessels with Attitude

How the artist combined her African roots with a range of influences to create a distinct practice that upended traditional studio pottery.

How the artist combined her African roots with a range of influences to create a distinct practice that upended traditional studio pottery.

Magdalene Odundo, Untitled, 1987. Design London.

Written by Moira Vincentelli


Magdalene Odundo emerged onto the art scene after her groundbreaking MA show at the Royal College of Art in 1982. At this point, she established her signature style. For forty years she has worked steadily, producing breathtaking vessels of stunning elegance. They are like children – each one is unique, but all are clearly part of an extended family of forms.

The present work dates from 1987, relatively early in her oeuvre, and embodies a distinctive type. In silhouette it might suggest a natural form such as a thistle head or a strange gourd, but such references are always oblique. A precisely balanced round base supports an upper part which flares out daringly, defined by two delicate ribs running up to the points of an oval‐shaped rim. This is folded inwards creating an almond shape, framing the interior cavity. Looking down on the piece from above, it reveals a contrasting geometry of a pointed oval floating above the circular base. These are the kind of secret geometries that intrigue the eye and play on allusion. As she explained to Ben Okri in a talk in 2019, rims “enable you to imagine being part of the void that is inside, the fullness or the emptiness. The rim leads you into being curious. It is also an edge that enables you to think of the fragility of the pot.”

Magdalene Odundo in her studio. © Alun Callender.

Rims enable you to imagine being part of the void that is inside, the fullness or the emptiness. The rim leads you into being curious. It is also an edge that enables you to think of the fragility of the pot.

– Magdalene Odundo

One of the first times I met Magdalene Odundo was at a potters’ weekend event. When the folk band played an Irish jig, Magdalene was the only person in the room who could do Irish dancing. Such is a colonial education. As a young person, she had been taught by Irish nuns in a school in Kenya. It is emblematic of much that was to come. Odundo’s sources are often surprising and cross many boundaries. Born in Kenya, her family lived for some years in Delhi, but her schooling was mainly in Mombasa and Nairobi. She was a city child but spent holiday periods with relations in the “reserves,” as they were called in colonial parlance. Recognizing an artistic bent, her early training and employment was in commercial design. She eagerly took up an opportunity to come to study in the UK, originally on a foundation art course in Cambridge but shifted direction a year after, towards a course where ‘making’ was at the core. West Surrey College of Art and Design at Farnham, now part of the University for the Creative Arts, was noted for textiles and ceramics. The institution has been a part of her life since that time, first as a student where she graduated with a first-class honors degree in 1976, later as a teacher, and after 2001 as professor. In 2018 she was appointed Chancellor of the University of the Creative Arts.

The dominant trend in studio pottery in the 1970s in the UK was wheel‐thrown stoneware in the Leach tradition; but things were beginning to change, and Odundo was a key figure in that change. While at Farnham she was able to visit Michael Cardew (1901‐83) at Wenford Bridge. Cardew had developed the Abuja Pottery Training Centre in Nigeria and helped to arrange a two‐month residency for her at Abuja. It proved to be a turning point, giving her time to concentrate on acquiring the essential skills of a working pottery. She finally learned to throw pots on the wheel but, more significantly, she learned a system of hand building from the women potters employed there; most famously, Ladi Kwali (1925‐ 84), by then a recognized figure who had demonstrated her traditional hand building technique in Europe and the US. In much of Africa, pottery is a female craft and business.

Still today, women make functional vessels for cooking, storing water, or brewing beer. They shape the pots by hand and fire them in open bonfires, although techniques vary from region to region. Ladi Kwali used her Gwari forming and decorating system, but in fact the handsome vessels she made at Abuja were hybrids. The pots were made of stoneware clay, glazed and high‐fired with wood in the big bottle kiln at Abuja. Odundo continues to use a version of the hand building technique she first learned in Nigeria, where a ball of clay is pinched out and pulled up from the inside as thick coils of clay are added.

Magdalene Odundo’s hand-building method. © Ben Powell. 

From her earliest student days in the UK, Odundo seized every opportunity to learn from the rich resources in museums. In Cambridge, she discovered the wonderful slipware of Thomas Toft (d. 1689) and much more at the Fitzwilliam Museum; but she had also delighted in the domestic Modernism to be found at Kettle’s Yard. The British Museum offered many other inspirational objects from across the world. At Farnham, she had responded to the classes in art and cultural history enthusiastically. Her Catholic tastes and her ability to absorb essential qualities of global design were brilliantly demonstrated in a major exhibition, The Journey of Things at the Hepworth Wakefield in 2019. Here, her work was shown alongside modernist sculpture and painting, artefacts from Africa and elsewhere, and studio pottery.

Vessels by Magdalene Odundo exhibited at The Journey of Things exhibition at Hepworth Wakefield in 2019. Photo: © PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo.

After graduation, she took the opportunity to travel to the USA and, more by chance than design, met Maria Martinez (1887‐1980), the great Pueblo potter who in that period ran summer workshops at Idyllwild in California. As in so much of Africa, Native American pottery was traditionally made by women who used hand building techniques and open firing to produce functional and ceremonial ceramics. In the early decades of the twentieth century, Maria Martinez and her husband Julian, encouraged by ethnographers and archaeologists, had reinvented and refined a system of burnishing and firing blackware to a spectacular shine. Glaze cannot be fired in an open fire, but prolonged burnishing and smoking or carbonizing the surface is an alternative way of giving a more sealed surface. Women potters spend long periods burnishing their pots and the polishing stones are often prized personal tools. Related techniques can be found in many parts of Africa, in Mexico, South Asia, Northern Europe and Denmark, and most famously in classical Greece.

On her return from the US, Odundo worked for a period in the education department at the Commonwealth Institute in Kensington and was able to introduce clay work into the program. She enjoyed teaching and continued to make work when she could. Nevertheless, it was her successful application to the Royal College of Art which proved a breakthrough, allowing her three years to concentrate on her own development. She had hoped to work with Hans Coper (1920‐1981), whose sculptural vessels she greatly admired. He had recently retired but she found other inspirational teachers including the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi (1924‐2005), who encouraged her interest in material culture. While at the Royal College, she undertook research on different types of clay and worked out a ceramic body that suited her needs. She also experimented with terra sigillata slip (highly refined liquid clay) which could be applied over the surface and burnished to achieve a silky sheen.

Workbench and burnishing tools. © Stephen Brayne.

Like many potters, Odundo has a love-hate relationship with the firing process. She creates a finish that is an equivalent of many traditional women potters’, but open firing is challenging. Each system is developed in relation to the fuel available and the climate conditions; it does not work well in the rain. Borrowing from a system widely used in industrial ceramics, she experimented with saggar firing, whereby a pot is fired inside a larger container filled with combustible material such as sawdust. Works are often fired several times to adjust the effects. In oxidizing conditions, the pieces emerge a bright orange color while, if the oxygen is cut off, they become black and carbonized. Some vessels combine the two effects. The carbonized surface of this work from 1987 has a modulated, almost metallic, sheen.

Magdalene Odundo can be counted among many notable women clay artists whose work represents a distinctive departure from wheel thrown stoneware pottery that dominated the studio pottery tradition. Yet she was not a rebel but found her own distinctive path drawing on her roots in Africa, free to find inspiration from sources as varied as Elizabethan costume, Pueblo pottery, Mangbetu headdresses or modernist sculpture. With a postmodern sensibility, her vessels may evoke the natural world ‐ gourds, stamens, body references or dancing figures but they also convey the slow and tactile manner of their creation. They are built up slowly, smoothed out carefully and finished with the soft sheen of burnished terra sigillata. Finally, they are marked by the action of fire. Odundo’s pots have attitude; like models on the catwalk, they are performers.


Moira Vincentelli is Emeritus Professor of Art History and Consulting Curator of Ceramics, Aberystwyth University.



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