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Magdalene Odundo

From American Craft Inquiry: Volume 1, Issue 2

Magdalene Odundo

From American Craft Inquiry: Volume 1, Issue 2
Magdalene Odundo working in her studio

Magdalene Odundo working in her studio, Farnham, UK, 2016

Ben Boswell, courtesy of the artist

A masterful artist, Magdalene Odundo understands both the power of an image to communicate an idea and the capacity of an object like a ceramic pot to convey information about culture. This comprehension forms the basis of the body of work she has been developing since the late 1970s. Through her elegant forms, Odundo synthesizes the material culture she has studied in Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe. She finds and amplifies similarities, thereby creating universal forms that resonate with many cultures.

Odundo’s artworks evoke the human body in a way that strongly reminds the viewer of the inherent connections between the ancient vessel form and the concept of the body as a vessel. With simple curves and color variations, her sculptural works convey the depths of the connection between humans, earth, clay, and vessels. She desires to use precise form to send a message, which is an ethos she translates clearly into her sculptural vocabulary. She chose handbuilding as her construction technique because of its tradition as African women’s work, and the universality of her formal language is deepened by her study of classical forms from the ancient cultures of Greece, China, South America, and Africa. Through her thirst for knowledge about cultures from around the world and through the ages, Magdalene Odundo has created a formal vocabulary that synthesizes many cultures. This synthesis results in forms that embody universal meaning and power.

Odundo is a citizen of each community she visits, and our connections through her can bring a larger measure of much-needed unity in these difficult political times. She teaches us that bold political statements can be made through forms and images that emphasize the universal quality of humanity. There is a place for political art with stark and specific perspectives. However, creating art that reminds us of our commonalities is just as powerful as art that divides us.

Why address Magdalene Odundo, a well-known international ceramic artist, in this issue of American Craft Inquiry dedicated to untold stories? Witnessing her interactions with countless artists, students, visitors, collectors, staff, and interns during her two-month guest artist residency at the Clay Studio, the power of her generous personality became clear to my colleagues and me. She makes those around her feel special, and she listens and shares of herself. She has participated in numerous similar visits all over the country and she has cultivated numerous relationships during similar experiences. One of her untold stories, then, is her influence on the field of ceramics in the United States through these visits. What follows is an account of Odundo’s impact on one portion of that world – the Clay Studio in Philadelphia. While she hasn't flown beneath the radar, the story of her considerable influence is worth telling.

In April 2017, I was privileged to engage in a conversation with Odundo at the Philadelphia Museum of Art during her residency. During our conversations, three topics emerged as paramount elements that inform her artmaking: the significance of international travel, her self-awareness as a member of the African diaspora, and teaching as a source for her own continued learning. The following was gleaned from our conversations in preparation for, and during, the public conversation in Philadelphia.

Magdalene Anyango Namakhiya Odundo was born in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1950, during the period of British colonization (1895 – 1963). Her early school years were spent in Catholic schools that were heavily influenced by the country’s colonial status. Only English was spoken at school, even though Swahili was the language of her home life. This early encounter with cultural multiplicity affected her perspective on culture as she moved into the world of visual language in the arts.

Although the Catholic schools offered art on a limited basis, she excelled as an art student from a young age and was encouraged by her teachers. She twice won the prestigious national Youth Festival Poster Contest. Her designs for the Youth Festival were reproduced and seen all around Nairobi. She also won art contests for the Esso Calendar (an annual contest sponsored by the Standard Oil Co. for its promotional calendars) and for a government-sponsored poster about blood donation. She studied graphics and commercial art at Nairobi Polytechnic, one of the first higher education institutions in East Africa. It is noteworthy that her interest in art in these early years was focused on commercial and graphic art. Odundo’s early forays into artmaking focused on using creativity and imagemaking to convey information and messages to a broad public. Through her practical training, she learned that the most effective way to do this was through simple lines and forms.

After studying at the polytechnic, Odundo began an apprenticeship at an advertising firm in Nairobi. Her mentors there recognized her talent and encouraged her to pursue further art training in England, where the art education system was better established. They hoped she would return with skills from an education abroad. She began a course of study in commercial art and graphic design at the Cambridge School of Art. During her first-year foundation studies in graphic design, she was introduced to ceramics by a professor, Zoe Ellison. Odundo fell in love with the material, and, with Ellison’s encouragement, in 1973 she transferred to West Surrey College of Art & Design at Farnham, where she could focus on clay.

Her initial attraction to ceramics was based on the material itself, as well as an interest in English slipware. Having focused on commercial and graphic arts up to that point, the emphasis on line, message, and simple imagery employed in the slipware tradition appealed to her graphic sensibility. Moreover, at that time, Bernard Leach, Michael Cardew, and their school of artists were making contemporary works employing the simple lines of English slipware that had first attracted Odundo to the medium.

This period has been referred to as the Golden Age of British ceramics due to the number of artists working and the quality of work being produced. Odundo feels privileged to have entered the field during this rich time. At Farnham, Henry Hammond (1914 – 86) was her most important teacher. He not only encouraged her talent and guided her early technical education in clay, he also introduced her to the history and contemporary field of ceramics. Hammond understood the value of leading his students on trips to museums and to meet well-known working artists. These first-hand experiences left an indelible mark.

On one such trip they visited the Leach Pottery at St. Ives, where Hammond introduced Odundo to Cardew, (1901 – 83). During their visit, Cardew spoke to Odundo and the other students about his travels and time spent in Nigeria. Involved with potterymaking there since the early 1940s, he had established three potteries, culminating in the Abuja Pottery Training Centre. In 1954, Ladi Kwali, (1925 – 81), who had been trained in traditional potterymaking in her home village, joined the center at Abuja, where her talent helped to maintain the operation for many years. Cardew arranged international exhibitions of her work and the work of other potters there, bringing acclaim and financial resources to the endeavor. Cardew encouraged Odundo to go to Abuja and spend time learning from Ladi Kwali and the other potters at the center.

In 1974, Odundo spent three months at Abuja. She was impressed with the incredible talent of the women artists, and she credits her time there with a subsequent increase in the range of her handbuilding and throwing skills. She also spent some time studying pottery in her native Kenya, and, after graduation from Farnham in 1976, she travelled to the United States. During that trip, she spent time at the Idyllwild summer studio and visited important pottery sites in the United States. Odundo sought out Native American potters in particular, and felt lucky to attend a traditional pit-firing at San Ildefonso Pueblo during her trip. It is possible that Maria Martinez (1886 – 1980) was present at that pit-firing; if it was not the highly regarded Martinez herself, it was certainly a group of women artists of her family and pueblo working within her vocabulary of reinterpretation of traditional techniques. As in Abuja, Odundo observed highly skilled women creating handbuilt pots using methods that echoed the long history of their culture.

Seeing the skills and style of fellow African women, as well as those of Native American women, bolstered Odundo’s awareness of herself as a female artist, and as an artist of the African diaspora. She became an interpreter of visual language, with the power to teach through the forms of her work. Odundo sought to understand the political and historical effects of colonization on Africa, and that consciousness affected her approach to her work. Handbuilding pottery for utility was largely considered women’s work in many cultures, and she made a deliberate choice to pursue the technique. By employing that process in an intellectually rigorous way, Odundo found an important tool with which to impart meaning and explore her identity as an African woman living abroad.

Her interest in traditional pots of Africa, indigenous North and South America, Asia, and ancient Greece and Rome, also suggests a deep respect for vessels that hold the history of a culture within their form and decoration. After her international travels had begun in earnest, these ideas coalesced into a growing understanding of the power of form to translate knowledge. Her grounding in graphic design, combined with her research on ceramics of various cultures, helped to form her visual vocabulary. The desire to learn about and observe different cultures led to frequent travel and to the formation of meaningful, diverse relationships all over the world.

Appropriation and Recuperation

Returning to the United Kingdom, Odundo spent three years as a museum educator at the Commonwealth Institute, where she interpreted costumes and artifacts from around the world for groups of school children. She gave tours of the costume collection and organized festivals that examined world cultures through material culture. Similar to her approach to her ceramic art, this pursuit drew on the capacity of the graphic arts to communicate information through visual language. Odundo’s understanding of this concept, from a commercial as well as an artistic standpoint, allowed her to flourish. She became acutely aware of the power that this kind of direct visual education had on the participating students. The children responded with excitement to her lessons, and she saw that she was broadening the cultural understanding of these young British citizens. At the same time, she was very aware that she was working within an institution originally founded with quite an ethnocentric mission.1 Odundo witnessed the colonizers’ perspective of “primitive art,” and the “myopic way Europeans viewed different areas of Africa into oversimplified regions (such as Egypt, sub-Sahara, and South Africa),” as if it were one monolithic culture, rather than many unique nations and cultures.2 She questioned how Europeans could see their own history as civilized while applying the concept of “primitive” to the rest of the world, when it was the Europeans who colonized, using violent and repressive tactics to advance their own interests.

Teaching at the Commonwealth Institute gave Odundo time to refine her ideas about the reciprocal appropriation and re-appropriation of culture that characterizes the relationship between colonizers and the colonized. As she puts it, she examined “the symbiosis and osmosis that exists within relationships between cultures.”3 These experiences coalesced into the powerful insights she went on to communicate through her art as a member of the African diaspora.

In 1979, Odundo began her graduate work at the Royal College of Art, where she felt she could further process and explore her various influences through the physicality of her artwork. She honed her technical skills and expanded her networks. Eduardo Paolozzi, (1924 – 2005) was a teacher who, as a professor of sculpture and ceramics, encouraged her not to see divisions between artistic disciplines. She also met David Queensberry and Martin Hunt, who were ceramic designers (Queensberry Hunt), collectors, and supporters, and they formed a strong bond.

Three years at RCA were well spent, as became clear when Odundo installed her final senior exhibition. The work was installed in a less than ideal gallery, yet sold briskly. Exhibitions, residencies, and teaching positions followed. Magdalene Odundo’s work gained critical acclaim and popularity among collectors and museums. Her work is now part of nearly 50 public collections. And in both 2010 and 2013, her work broke auction sales records for works by a living British ceramic artist.

Her early years teaching at the Commonwealth Institute echoed long and loud in her life, as teaching has remained an important aspect of Odundo’s artistic life. She has always been active, teaching workshops, lecturing, and serving as visiting artist, as she did at the Clay Studio in 1992 and again this year. In 2001, she was appointed professor of ceramics at her undergraduate alma mater, now the Surrey Institute of Art & Design, University College. In 2008, Queen Elizabeth appointed her a member of the Order of the British Empire in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for services to education and the arts. In 2016, she retired from her teaching post, and in 2017 she was named chancellor of the school (now University for the Creative Arts) a testament to the value of her teaching and the respect she has garnered among her peers.

Ever gracious and humble, when Odundo accepted an award as honorary member at the NCECA conference in March 2017, she spoke of the people who had influenced her artistic life, rather than of her own accomplishments. She gave credit to Zoe Ellison, Walter Keeler, Henry Hammond, Ladi Kwali, Eduardo Paolozzi, Martin Hunt, David Queensberry, and Michael Sherrill, among others, and, most eloquently, to her many students, citing that she has learned more from them than she ever could have taught.

A major exhibition, “Universal and Sublime: The Vessels of Magdalene Odundo” opened at the High Museum in Atlanta in June 2017. The show, curated artfully by Carol Thompson, the museum’s curator of African art, illustrates much of what we have discussed here. Sketchbooks from an earlier visit to the High reveal Odundo’s interest in the power of historical objects. Her drawings of works in the High’s collection of African art are paired with those objects. The viewer sees the subtle echo of those forms throughout the galleries in Odundo’s elegant vessels. Odundo’s work has been shown in many additional exhibitions, including more than 20 solo exhibitions, but this exhibition is her first solo show at a major art museum in the United States, heralding a new level of acclaim for her work.

Throughout her life, Magdalene Odundo has been hungry for knowledge about what separates us – gender, politics, imperialism – as well as what unites us – art, beauty, nature, the human form. Deliberately abstracting this information in her work, she has achieved near universal appreciation. She is lauded by Kenya, often called on by the art world to represent the entire continent of Africa (harkening to the problem of appropriation she examined at the Commonwealth Institute), heralded by England where she has made her home, and even claimed by the United States as an often invited and honored guest. It is difficult to overstate the importance of Odundo’s artwork or her generosity of spirit in sharing her considerable knowledge with the worldwide ceramic art community. She studied cultures from around the world and throughout history, gleaned the commonalities in the various artistic traditions and combined them to form a visual vocabulary with a universal appeal. Odundo’s art brings us together by reminding us of our shared humanity.

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1. The Commonwealth Institute was originally founded as the Imperial Institute in 1888 by Queen Victoria with the purpose of exhibiting objects that exemplified the industrial and commercial products of the various colonies of the British Empire. The name was changed in 1958 and the focus shifted to show the people of England “how the rest of the Commonwealth lives.” Commonwealth Institute: A commemorative handbook issued on the occasion of the opening of the new Institute. November 6, 1962.

2. Odundo, Magdalene. Conversation. April 4, 2017, Philadelphia.

3. ibid.