Throwing Muses: Black Women Artists Who Create With Clay | Art

OWhen Ladi Kwali met British studio potter Michael Cardew in the early 1950s, his traditional handcrafted water jars were already well known in the Gwari region of Nigeria. Having spotted her work in the house of the Emir of Abuja, Cardew quickly invited her to join his local government supported pottery training centre. There she added the wheel and oven of modern industry to her toolbox for creating discarded tableware, and became a star in the traveling demonstrations Cardew organized in Europe and America.

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She was a phenomenal figure, “taking two cultures in her stride,” says Jareh Das, the Nigerian-born, UK-based curator of Body Vessel Clay, the upcoming exhibition unveiling the lineages between black female artists. over three generations. Kwali provides the baseline for the show, but its place in ceramic history is far from simple.

Also in the exhibition is Bisila Noha, a ceramist whose work in Body Vessel Clay resembles the unsung African mothers of pottery. For her, British museum collections tend to include Kwali “only because of the connection with a white Briton, rather than elevating his pieces in and of themselves.”

Das wants the exhibition to bring Kwali out of the shadow of Western patriarchy, “to individualize her and where she comes from, the stories the pots tell us about her life and her culture.” In doing so, she draws attention not to Cardew, the British comer, but to the matrilineal teaching crucial to global pottery traditions.

Kwali learned her skills from her aunt and later trained others, such as Magdalene Odundo, the Kenyan-born British artist known for her gooseneck and puffy-bellied pots. Although they don’t share a spoken language, Odundo recalled how she learned from Kwali like a baby might – through touch, not words. “Craftsmanship is a language in itself that is universal,” says Noha, who studied with women potters in Mexico and Morocco. “We can all come together through this, regardless of where we come from.”

At the same time, the exhibition reminds us that clay can be as daring and political as it is timeless. Among young artists, Phoebe CollingsJamesThe ceramic torso of with piercings and scarred skin evokes sweaty club nights, Roman armor, tribal markings and war wounds. “I wanted them to be accused of queer eroticism,” she says.

Shawanda Corbett, an artist born with one arm and without legs, creates pots with heterogeneous enamels shaped from tilting spheres. They invite us to imagine what it is like to inhabit different vessels, different bodies.

Jade Montserrat, meanwhile, explores the raw material in its most natural state. In a mud pit on a shooting range in her home county of Yorkshire, she massages clay into her skin and hair, a black woman ‘discovering and building her identity’, she says, while raising questions on land, belonging and property. It offers a sweeping conclusion to an exhibit that begins with traditional indigenous pottery. Montserrat’s interest in clay could be the common thread of the show.

“It’s about making the circuits of energy obvious,” she told herself. “It’s about potential.”

Clay Today: Five Highlights of the Exhibition

Ladi Kwali (main image)
Nigerian potter Ladi Kwali has gained international acclaim for her fusion of traditional Gwari forms and modern pottery techniques. “His work has evolved from functional household jars to works of art to glazing and the introduction of new technologies,” says curator Jareh Das.

Jade Montserrat and Webb-Ellis, Clay (film still) 2015. Photography: Courtesy of the artists

Jade Montserrat
In this video performance, Yorkshire artist Jade Montserrat covers her naked body with clay. It was filmed at a filming estate near where she grew up and “explores the black presence in the North of England”.

Madeleine Odundo
Magdalene Odundo, pot group. Photograph: Magdalene AN Odundo/York Museums Trust. Courtesy of York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery)

Madeleine Odundo
This famous British ceramist of Kenyan origin studied at the pottery training center with Ladi Kwali in the early 1970s. “She started making pots in this Gwari style and learned how to make by hand”, explains the curator Jareh Das. “The experience also influenced her by looking closely at pottery traditions in other parts of Africa and the world.”

Madeleine Odundo
Bisila Noha, Two-legged ships, 2020. Photography: Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Thomas Broadhead for OmVed Gardens

Bisila Noha
Equatorial Hispano-Guinean ceramist Bisila Noha first created her two-part vessels to portray her sense of being “between country, culture and heritage”. When she discovered that an African potter, Kouame Kakaha, had used similar forms, it inspired her ongoing research project on “nameless clay women; our common mothers and grandmothers”.

Phoebe CollingsJames
Phoebe Collings-James, The subtle reigns over the dense 2021. Photography: Rob Harris/Courtesy of the artist and Camden Arts Center

Phoebe CollingsJames
While making her ceramic torsos, Phoebe Collings-James says that “Makonde and Yoruba ceremonial body masks depicting the bodies of pregnant women and Roman armor with bumping nipple rings were all recent memorabilia”. Her interests include “our awkward signifiers of race, class, sexuality and gender, and how we can wear them awkwardly or disobediently”.

Body Vessel Clay: black women, ceramics and contemporary art is at Square of the Two TemplesLondon, January 29 until April 24.

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