Black women, ceramics, and contemporary art
From traditional Nigerian clay pottery to contemporary ceramic sculpture, this exhibition navigates the line between usable domestic objects and fine arts.
(above) Eddie Saint-Jean Art reviewer
In the front gallery, the focus is on the homemade earthenware of the Gwari tribe, one of the largest indigenous groups in North-Central Nigeria, and the contemporary ceramicists inspired by their pottery. The work invites commentary on gender and race, with Gwari pottery traditionally taught in female-led circles, and craft skills usually handed down from mother to daughter.
These domestic objects project a distinct visual element beyond mere functionality. And it’s fascinating to discover that the wondrously intricate carvings on these large vessels are made with knives and the colouring comes from locust tree pods.
We owe much of the popularity of this pottery to the seminal works of Ladi Kwali (1925-1984) also of the Gwari tribe. Like many of the prominent ceramicists with work on display, she was taught at the influential Pottery Training Centre in Aduja. She taught there herself in the 1950s, so many notable African potters developed their skills under her and any renascent interest owes much to her influence.
Amongst them, ceramicist Magdalene Odundo, who embraced both the Gwari style and European influences. Her works are unglazed and this rejection of overstated decorative elements draws her work closer to traditional sensibilities and practices.
The functionality of these pots, vases, vessels and other handmade earthenware items is never lost despite the reforged aesthetic. These works are grounded in the craft skills and life experiences of the ceramicists’ ancestors and they seek to accentuate this link rather than suffuse into hybrid styles.
All amazing work but look out for the traditional Gwari dowry jars from 1900. It’s an essential starting point for all exhibition visitors. You can see where the contemporary artists – and even Ladi Kwali – get their inspiration.
WHAT? – Body, Vessel, Clay
WHERE? – Two Temple Place, London WC2R 38 (Nearest Tube: Temple)
WHEN? – Until 24 April 2022