Magdalene Odundo - Design London Thursday, May 12, 2022 | Phillips
  • Magdalene Odundo: Vessels with Attitude


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


    Magdalene Odundo in her studio
    © Alun Callender 

    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’.


    Odundo’s secret geometries

    '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. Recognising 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 honours 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 learnt a system of hand building from the women potters employed there; most famously, Ladi Kwali (1925‐ 84), by then a recognised 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 learnt in Nigeria where a ball of clay is pinched out and pulled up from the inside as thick coils of clay are added.


    Left: Magdalene Odundo’s hand-building method Photo: Stephen Brayne
    Right: The artist's smoothing method © Ben Boswell

    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 (died 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. There, 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
    the Hepworth Wakefield in 2019
    © 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 re‐invented 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 carbonising 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. 


    Workbench and burnishing tools
    Photo: Stephen Brayne

    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 programme. 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.


    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 oxidising conditions, the pieces emerge a bright orange colour while, if the oxygen is cut off, they become black and carbonised. Some vessels combine the two effects. The carbonised surface of this work from 1987 has a modulated, almost metallic, sheen.


    The silky sheen of the vessel’s surface


    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.

    • Provenance

      Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner, 1987

    • Literature

      Magdalene Odundo et al., Magdalene Odundo: Clay Forms, exh. cat., Blackwell/Lakeland Arts Trust, Bowness-on-Windemere, 4 July-23 September 2001, pp. 26, 27 for similar examples
      Anthony Slayter-Ralph, ed., Magdalene Odundo, Aldershot, 2004, pp. 36, 103, 106 for similar examples



Burnished and carbonised terracotta.
36.2 x 22 x 23 cm (14 1/4 x 8 5/8 x 9 in.)
Underside incised Odundo/1987.

Full Cataloguing

£70,000 - 90,000 

Sold for £302,400

Contact Specialist

Antonia King

Head of Sale, Design
+44 20 7901 7944


London Auction 12 May 2022