In the first gallery of ‘Magdalene Odundo: Journey of Things’ at the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield, is a case containing three objects, an anachronic assemblage of vessels in dialogue across time and space. On the far right is a beaker from the Kerma culture of Nubia, almost 4000 years old, which the potter saw in Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum. In the centre, a tiny dipper vessel from archaic Cyprus of similar antiquity, once owned by the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, whose studio Odundo visited, and now part of the Wakefield permanent collection. On the left is an example of Odundo’s own work, a glass ‘Drinking Vessel’, made in the year 2000, its shape, twin handles and name recalling, for classicists at least, a Dionysiac kantharos, associated with ritual.
These three objects and their histories exemplify the connections across time and space that the exhibition’s reference to a ‘journey’ suggests. Odundo’s selections of pots and other artworks for the exhibition, and the connections she makes between them, represent a post-colonial perspective in which there is no simplistic conflation of the ancient and the traditional. The objects she has chosen to complement her own pots illuminate both the aesthetic and technical influences on the physical form of her work, her standpoint as an artist of colour understanding her own lived experience of colonialism and its relation to her training and work, and her appreciation of the crafts of many cultures. Each piece on display contributes to telling the story of her discovery of objects and craft techniques from different cultures and times during her studies in Kenya, Nigeria and the UK (where she is now Emerita Professor of Ceramics at the University for the Creative Arts), as well as her developing understanding of the socio-political conditions under which she gained access to those techniques. She recently told Apollo magazine:
‘Whether I’m looking at what is contemporary, or looking at the world while I’m walking, or looking at other art, landscapes, or whatever’s in front of me, I’m looking at history – and at the human need to make things and to become part of a history of being human.’
Some of the objects Odundo has chosen come from studio artists, others from makers ; some from the distant past, others contemporary. Those from classical antiquity connect with the allusions to that past in her work – from the shapes of vessels and their handles, to the severe and minimal figurative elements of Cycladic sculptures.
While the techniques of modern studio potters are distinct from those of ancient ones, Odundo’s use of strong red and black colours, generated by oxidising or carbonising the surfaces of her pots in the firing process, offers a strong visual echo of Roman and pre-Roman pottery, of red terra sigillata and black Etruscan bucchero ware. In her re-use of classical elements combined with her other influences, Odundo’s work exemplifies a post-colonial engagement with the material cultures of classical antiquity, in which they are not valued above elements from other cultures of the past and the present, but set in a productive dialogue.
This combination of influences contributes to a highly recognisable aesthetic, particularly grouped forms of red and black vases. Odundo has connected the angled and flared openings of vases like this pair to the costumes and head-dresses of Mangbetu women of the Democratic Republic of Congo; Odundo has said ‘You can imagine when you’re coiling that clay on to a vessel this woman laboriously binding her head’. The complex relationship between contemporary art and the colonial history of African peoples is also represented by ‘Janey Morris’, a clothed figure by Yinka Shonibare which uses African printed textiles to create a dress as if for the Pre-Raphaelite muse and craftswoman.
The story of how Odundo came to incorporate all these elements in her work is a case-study in the intersection of colonial history with an individual life. Odundo, born and educated in Nairobi, did not set out to be a ceramicist, but a graphic artist. But her initial experiences as an art student led her towards less commercial art and design. During a year studying graphic art at the Cambridge College of Art, she got to know the classical holdings of the Fitzwilliam Museum and the modernist collection of Kettle’s Yard, both represented in this exhibition along with modern art responding to the ancient world, such as Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s Wrestlers (1914). The ancient and contemporary ethnographic collections of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology introduced her to the artistic traditions of the Americas and Australasia.
Studying art at the West Surrey College of Art and Design brought Odundo into contact with teachers from the British studio pottery movement. One might perhaps have expected her work in ceramics to have settled into the styles and practices of makers in that tradition, but the potter Michael Cardew (himself an Oxford Classics graduate, before making his career in craft) encouraged her to explore the pottery heritage of African peoples, particularly those of West Africa. Odundo then studied at a training centre Cardew had earlier established in Nairobi on behalf of the colonial government, intended to preserve and disseminate African pottery techniques. Here Odundo learned the traditional Gbari techniques for hand-building rather than throwing pots, from teachers such as Ladi Kwali, whose work is also on display in the exhibition.
Odundo has a particular interest in the ritual use of pottery; her thesis related Kenyan women’s pottery traditions to the use of vessels in rites of passage. Vessels are put to ritual and ceremonial use in many cultures and times – whether for serving drinks, from the mixed wine of the ancient Greek symposium to the English afternoon tea (exemplified here by a Lucie Rie tea-set), or for carrying and pouring offerings in ritual and commemorative settings. Odundo has reflected this in work which evokes the role of vessels in funerary and commemorative practices. In recent years she has made pots that echo the form of the kigango, vertical memorial sculptures which form part of the funerary practices of the Mijikenda people of Kenya. Here, three of her kigango vessels are grouped with memorial works connected to other times and cultures; a model of ‘Single Form’, Barbara Hepworth’s iconic memorial sculpture for her friend, United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hjammerskjöld, and a fourth-century BCE Attic funerary lekythos, used for funerary and graveside rituals, as well as an original kigango (not pictured). Like Hepworth, Odundo has marked personal loss through her art.
Odundo’s simultaneous centring of local craft traditions from Kenya and her use of elements from Graeco-Roman antiquity, as well as other ancient cultures, in her pottery challenge ideas of the incorporation of African cultures as providing primitivist elements in art which should be displayed separately from ‘Western’ art. In her work she has established a post-colonial aesthetic in a discipline in which Graeco-Roman classical antiquity has often provided a dominant reference. Interviewed by Monique Kernan in 2003, she said:
Debating who or what culture or nation or ethnicity one is for purposes of exhibiting is a non-starter, because one is who one is. Critics are the ones who pigeonhole the art and artists by calling art “primitive,” applying an anthropology that’s fifty years out of date. [African] artists are fed up with being seen as exotics.
- Magdalene Odundo: the journey of things, at the Hepworth Gallery, Wakefield until June 2, 2019, then at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, from 3 August to 15 December 2019.
- For an expert view on ancient Cypriot elements in Odundo’s work, see Anna Reeve’s post in her Ancient Cypriot Art in Leeds blog.
- Berns, Marla C. (1995) Ceramic Gestures: new vessels by Magdalene Odundo (Santa Barbara).
- Hardwick, L., & Gillespie, C. (eds.) (2007). Classics in Post-colonial Worlds (Classical presences, Oxford).
- Kerman, M. (2017) Contemporary British Artists of African Descent and the Unburdening of a Generation (London), Chapter 2.
- Slater-Ralph, Anthony (ed.) (2004) Magdalene Odundo (Aldershot).