The Earthly Art of an African Woman

June 14, 2012 § 1 Comment

Now in addition to figure and decoration on pottery we have the element of form and surface to take into account. One of the most spectacular examples of this is the pottery of the Kenyan/British potter Magdalene Odundo.  I have copied a description of her work from the web site of the Metropolitan Museum New York.  (below)

One of the issues that museums confront when displaying her work is how or more accurately, where to display it. I discussed this with the late William Siegmann, curator of African Art at the Brooklyn Museum. One of her vessels came to the African department as a gift or purchase, I forget which.  Bill felt that it did have it’s links to the African potting traditions (Pottery in traditional Africa is belongs in the realm of women, and is associated with spirit powers), Odundo’s objects would be just as at home in a gallery of contemporary arts and crafts.  I personally feel, having seen her vessels in African collections, that in fact her work does seem more at home among contemporary objects. This is not however to negate their ancient yet  timeless quality.

Metropolitan label:

The sinuous ceramic vessels created by contemporary artist Magdalene Odundo have been praised for their elegant aesthetic appeal. While their beauty can derive from the simple appreciation of their graceful forms, Odundo’s vessels blend multiple associations and meanings in a manner that makes them simultaneously familiar and novel.

This example from the Museum’s collection is comprised of a round-bodied pot and an elongated, wide-mouthed neck. There are four small nodules at the base of the neck, and two more centered on opposite sides of the main body. Odundo creates her works using the coiling method—a practice thousands of years old and found worldwide. She begins by pulling a cone of clay upward as its middle is hollowed out to form the body of the vessel. Many of her pieces feature a round, voluptuous body; variation is expressed in the profile and gesture of the neck. Within this limited vocabulary of shapes, Odundo focuses on small physical additions and modifications to maximize aesthetic impact. It is through firing that Odundo’s vessels are transformed and finished. A piece is fired in one of two ways: in a purely oxidizing atmosphere, which turns the vessel a natural luminous red-orange, or in an oxidizing followed by a reducing atmosphere, which produces a rich charcoal-black. The gray/black tones of this piece are probably the result of partial reduction during the firing process. The exact outcome of firing is uncontrollable, adding a small element of chance to the artistic process. In this case, it may have aided in forming the abstract-expressionist qualities of the color scheme.

Odundo’s work explicitly acknowledges a link to the pottery traditions of Africa—indeed, in much of Africa, ceramic is a medium primarily associated with female creativity, and the anthropomorphic references to the female body in her work literalize that connection. The work, however, reveals a thorough knowledge of non-African traditions, including the complex vessel shapes of ancient Cyprus, the geometry of Cycladic figures, the heavy forms of Japan’s Jomon culture, and the unusual gourd-shaped pots of the Pokot of Kenya, among many others. Although Odundo was born in Kenya and received initial training as a graphic artist there, it was in England that she explored an interest in clay, after which she traveled to Kenya, Nigeria, the southwest United States, and many other locales to study indigenous pottery techniques. She then completed a master’s degree at the Royal College of Art in London, where she continues to live and work. The blend of influences present in her work prevents Odundo from being pigeonholed as a strictly African artist. Her profound exploration of the technical and expressive possibilities of the ceramic medium has created work unique within the landscape of contemporary art.


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