Magdalene Odundo OBE (b.1950) has selected a large collection of objects made in the last 3000 years that have informed her ceramic and glass-making practice. These are shown alongside fifty of her works. The underpinning concept of the show is that objects suggest many stories and histories about human experience.
Odundo was born in Kenya and moved to the UK in 1971 to attend art school. She chose to work in clay and then decided to visit Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria to study their ceramic traditions. Odundo’s desire to learn about vernacular crafts has taken her across the globe to Europe, Africa, Asia and Central America.
The overarching narrative explored in Magdalene Odundo: The Journey of Things is about her creative journey undertaken throughout her life spent making ceramics pieces, in the search of perfect form. However, the exhibition also tells the audience about other inter-related stories, such as the blue and white jasperware that ceramicist Lucie Rie designed for Wedgwood, yet was never made. Another story of oppression can be inferred by the terrifyingly petite iron corset made for a noble woman in the reign of Elizabeth I. It was clearly designed to reshape the female body. Stories exist within other stories. The title and form of Jean Arp’s bronze ‘Dream Amphora’ (1941) references the historical small-necked Grecian vessel but actually cannot function as a container. Arp’s work coveys the notion of ‘truth to materials’ while negating the idea that form follows function. It is another story about Western Modernism. Yinka Shonibare’s sculpture, ‘Jane Morris’ (2015), a Victorian dress made from Dutch wax printed cotton, reminds us of the richness of cross-cultural diasporic craft practices.
Odundo’s ceramic pieces are skilfully made from terracotta clay. Drawing upon the traditional Gbari method she learned in Nigeria, the works are hand-built rather than thrown on a potter’s wheel. A piece of clay is formed by hand into a vessel, and the height is created by adding strips of clay. The forms are decorated simply with clay suspended in water. The vessels’ surfaces are then carefully burnished. In the firing, many of the pots are subject to smoke created by wood, which has been thrown into the kiln. This results in a surface of the deepest bronze along with a sumptuous patina. In some examples, there is a variation in tonality where the carbonised decoration reveals the terracotta ground. The heat from the kiln produces in some cases an iridescence that is very subtle but adds visual interest.
The process may appear simple, but demands high levels of aesthetic, craft and technical expertise. From this ‘alchemy’ a series of beautiful pure forms are created, suggesting the human body. Delicate protuberances on the ‘belly’ of the ceramic pieces are suggestive navels, knuckles or spines. References to dancers are made through the asymmetrical arrangement of shapes. The fluid and dynamic rendering of clay forms, which at the same time have been fixed by the firing process, suggest the movement of bodies.
Many of the vessels are displayed in multiples, where the forms intertwine to create interesting negative spaces, which intrigue the viewer as they move around the exhibit; ‘Twins’ (2013) was a particularly effective example of this.
The purpose-built plinths designed by the architect Farshid Moussavi are soft grey and have a matt finish that enhances the ceramics, as well as the array of other sculpture and vernacular objects on display. The arrangement of the plinths within the gallery spaces along the walls leads the viewer through the storylines created by the objects, leaving Odundo’s ceramics at the centre of the space to be viewed in the round. The objects and ceramic pieces all share a common colour palette or tonality, with browns punctuated by vibrant shots of orange from the terracotta clay.
The arrangement of objects aims to show the many influences on Odundo’s work and as a result, it tells a deeply personal narrative. Most surprising was the room that included examples of textiles, both contemporary and historical, because it introduced a different tonal register and collection of forms. This room, in particular, referenced diasporic ideas about making and creativity within a post-colonial discourse.
The exhibition shows the audience how ideas about making and form continue and transform over vast areas of time and space. Although the show is like a sensual essay that successfully illustrates the dialogue that seems to exist between objects created over millennia, the room that I most enjoy is the one that has only Odundo’s work within it. The spectacle is like a visual poem where site, plinth and objects work together in synergy.
Magdalene Odundo: The Journey of Things, The Hepworth Wakefield, Wakefield, 16 February-16 June 2019
Dr Samantha Broadhead is Head of Research at Leeds Arts University