The audio file for this article was produced by the Ceramic Arts Network staff and not read by the author.
This exhibition, “Body Vessel Clay: Black Women, Ceramics, and Contemporary Art,” is about influence and lineage. It traces particular historical legacies that represent the past, present, and possible future of the ceramic arts. The focus is on the influence of ceramic practices that originate with one African woman, practices that resonate through the work of Black women sculptors/multimedia artists currently living in Britain. In showing a matrilineal line of influence, this exhibition brings together a number of interrelated but disparate topics. The British-born, Nigerian curator, Dr. Jareh Das, has put together what amounts to a family tree of traits traced through interconnected but radically different ceramic practices.
Significance and Recognition
The work in the exhibition falls into three groups—a focused presentation of the work of Ladi Dosei Kwali (c.1925–84); women who were directly influenced by her; and a group of British and African-born women sculptors who see themselves working in a post-colonial ceramic practice. Some of the younger women are African-born, others acknowledge their ties to Africa as a part of their heritage—most of this group were educated and reside in Britain. Their ceramic practices are diverse, experimental, and expressed through sculpture, performance, video, and photography. Their connection to Kwali is somewhat indirect, but curator Das sees Kwali’s influence as a “resonation” to be felt in the radical ways this younger generation works with clay.
The exhibition’s baseline is the work and influence of Kwali, a Nigerian woman working in the Gwari region of the country. Although her traditional, handbuilt water jars were already well known, her work changed substantially in the late 1950s when she joined Michael Cardew in a workshop where she was introduced to wheel throwing as well as different clay bodies, glazes, and firing techniques. These changes expanded her repertoire and made her internationally famous—no longer a producer of functional objects, but an artist. She was a powerful figure “taking two cultures in her stride,” as Das states. As a curator, Das intended the exhibition to showcase Kwali and to reinstate her significance as an artist and as a major figure in ceramic history whose legacy has not been sufficiently recognized outside of Africa. In her brilliant catalog, Das states that Kwali’s “most important contribution was her distinctive marriage of Gwari forms and imagery with a high-fired, glazed, stoneware body.”
Kwali produced work derived from three basic vessel shapes: large water pots, household storage pots, and elaborately decorated ceremonial pots. She initially learned to work with clay from her aunt, who taught her traditional coiling and pinching techniques. While continuing to handbuild using Gwari imagery and forms, she applied what she learned at Cardew’s Pottery Training Center to produce nonfunctional, highly decorated pots made of glazed stoneware. Her pots are decorated with animal imagery and subtle geometric and organic sgraffito patterns that were inscribed directly into the wet clay. Kwali’s significance to ceramic history can’t be overstated. Throughout the 1960s, she became a kind of rock star within the ceramics world, touring with Michael Cardew in Britain, Europe, and the US, where she demonstrated her handbuilding techniques, as well as showing her work in exhibitions in London. In 2007, Kwali’s significance within Nigerian culture was recognized when her image appeared on the currency’s 20 naira note.
The extraordinary ceramic sculptor, Dame Magdalene Odundo DBE (b. 1950), the Kenyan-born British artist, studied with Kwali in 1974.
“I went to work at the Abuja Pottery Training Centre in Abuja (now Suleja, the capital of Nigeria),” Odundo says. “She continues to inspire me.” After her work with Kwali, Odundo went on to produce ceramics that were handbuilt using Kwali’s coiling technique. Odundo is known for her elegant, swan-necked vessels, but Kwali’s influence, once you make the comparison, is quite evident. Odundo achieves the beautiful surfaces of her work by burnishing each piece, covering it with terra sigillata, and then burnishing it a second time. She then fires them in oxidation or reduction, which turns the terra cotta red-orange or black, respectively. Odundo’s work in the exhibition includes a pot she made during the time she was studying with Kwali—one that bears a geometric pattern resembling Kwali’s, incised into wet terra cotta.
Dr. Das sees a direct line of influence extending from Kwali in the 1960s and 1970s to Odundo in the 1980s to Bisila Noha’s investigations into the forgotten practices of Kwali and others in the 2020s. Noha (b.1988) is a London-based, biracial ceramic artist whose heritage is half-Spanish and half-Equatorial Guinean. Her work in the show is a consequence of a research project that led Noha to a study of the history and influence of forgotten African female potters including Ladi Kwali. Noha has said, “Craft is a language in itself that is universal; we can all come together through it, regardless of our background.” The heritage and belief systems that have shaped Noha come to the fore in her series of two-legged vessels. This series of work is made with a clay that is half stoneware and half clay that came from Baney, her father’s village in Equatorial Guinea. Das describes this series as “a metaphor for the feeling of in-betweenness she [Noha] often feels given her background: a conjunction of two legs, two parents, two cultures, two races, combined to birth something new.”
The remaining artists in the exhibition have a more indirect relationship to Kwali. Their work is less easily classified or defined; all have expanded the notions of sculptural clay practice through their various uses of video, performance, and sculpture. Regardless of the mediums they have chosen to express it through, all are motivated by the potential of clay’s tactility and changeable nature.
Motivated by Clay’s Potential
One of the recipients of the 2020 Turner Bursary Prize, Shawanda Corbett (b. 1989), is a Mississippi-born, Oxford, UK-based artist. Corbett, who was born with one arm and without legs, focuses on ceramics’ relationship with the human body. Her works in the show are thrown and wildly colorful, inspired as much by African and Asian traditions as they are by jazz. Corbett’s position as a queer Black woman with a disability has led her to question preconceptions around sex and gender.
Phoebe Collings-James (b. 1987) is London based and works with sculpture, video, sound, and performance. She has stated, “It was significant to know about Ladi Kwali’s work at a time when I was learning the formal techniques of wheel throwing . . . amongst the legacy of British studio ceramics, with its overbearing colonial legacies.” Her most dramatic works in the exhibition are three large ceramic torsos/armor/breastplates. All three pieces are entitled The subtle rules the dense (2021). They reference Makonde and Yoruba ceremonial body masks featuring pregnant bodies.
Jade Montserrat (b. 1981) is an artist and writer based in Yorkshire. She is an activist whose work is research driven and delves into personal history. She is vividly represented in the exhibition by a 9-minute film entitled Clay (2015), made in collaboration with the filmmakers Web-Ellis. In this film, she covers her naked body with clay, literally immersing herself in the landscape of her childhood. In the film, she gouges clay from the ground with her hands, partly recalling and recreating scenes from childhood. As she states, the piece “explores Black presence in northern England,” and includes ideas of belonging and race.
Chinasa Vivian Ezugha (b. 1991) is a Nigerian-born, British artist whose work makes connections to her heritage and examines her experience as a Black woman in England. Her work in the exhibition is represented by photographs of a performance and a sculpture. The photographs document a 6-hour performance from 2018, during which the artist worked with 66 pounds of clay—the photographs show her bent double supporting the weight of clay on her back, using her body as a canvas. Ezugha explores her identity and Nigerian cultural heritage using clay as a physical representation of death and rebirth. The presence of the 66 pounds of clay in the exhibition underscores the power of the photographs.
Julia Phillips’ (b. 1985, Hamburg, Germany) body of work includes ceramics and mixed media and deals with questions around race, power, and gender. Her engagement with clay is represented in the exhibition by her film performance, Burdened (2018), in which a stomping, armless body is juxtaposed with a growing pile of mud.
The exhibition spans 70 years of history and deals as much with the beautiful ceramic objects these artists have produced as it does with political issues. It is also concerned with emphasizing the essential contributions made by Black women to the field of ceramics. Reaching back to Kwali, the exhibition reveals how a specific legacy has made itself known in contemporary practice. Through the lens of the exhibition, we can see how clay continues to be a transformative medium, one with a depth and breadth that can bear a range of different expressions and practices.
the author Kay Whitney, a frequent contributor to Ceramics Monthly, is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles, California.