Dr Jareh Das
In her paper, Performative Raw Clay Practices and Ceramic Firing Techniques, artist Agustina Andreoletti states:
"…clay is not a passive matter relying on external agents to set it in motion, instead, it is matter that carries its own power and energy of transformation. Yet clay bears the sign of touching; it documents the engagement between a responsive material and the hand (or other non-human being or thing). The material and the human body exist by themselves; however, they are at the same time experienced and used by the other. The unfolding of relations, meanings, and transformations through the physicality of touch create a space for differentiation. The openness to malleability that clay offers requires a physical difference to be experienced, a tactile experience of continual change." 1
These astute observations of clay as a non-passive, haptic, malleable and transformative medium reimagined anew over time, were at the forefront in conceiving the exhibition Body, Vessel, Clay: Black Women Ceramics and Contemporary Art, recently on view at Two Temple Place and set to tour to York Art Gallery this summer. As I wrote in the catalogue essay, the exhibition probes seventy years of ceramic making spanning modernism to the present. It attends to the ways clay continues to serve as a transformative and expansive material for artistic use. ‘The thingness of clay’ 2, to borrow archaeologist Professor Louise Steel’s phrase, speaks to the multiple ways people across time have engaged with clay’s spiritual energy and transformative potential, expressing both malleable and durable qualities as new object histories emerge from an artform that has long excluded or forgotten the critical contributions of Black women to its histories.
Two central themes of hybridity and performativity emerged in this survey of the contributions by Black women working with ceramics and clay from different global locations. Across time as Body Vessel Clay shows and in agreement with Andreoletti, clay is not passive and it is constantly transformed by motion. We see this in the handbuilt Gwari pots by Kwali and others who create in this tradition: Halima Audu and of course Magdalene Odundo. A new generation working with clay come together in a contemporary display titled ‘The Politics of Clay’ with works by Phoebe Collings-James, Shawanda Corbett, Chinasa Vivian Ezugha, Jade Montserrat, Julia Phillips and Bisila Noha.
Body, Vessel Clay, by way of a summary, takes as its point of departure, the extraordinary life of seminal Nigerian potter, Ladi Kwali (1925-1984) who is remembered and celebrated for creating ceramics that bridge methods from indigenous Nigerian pottery and British studio pottery during the early 1950s to 1970s. Kwali was established within her community and Gwari ethnic group as a celebrated potter. Her speed and skill at handbuilding, a technique she learnt as a child from her aunt, would lead to many achievements later in life, such as an MBE for services as a pottery instructor, and an honorary doctorate from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. Importantly, her pots took pride of place in the palace of the Emir of Abuja, Alahaji Suleiman Barau, the 6th emir of the Abuja Emirate (now called Suleja) and the first western trained emir in the history of Nigeria.
This positioning in the palace led British studio potter, Michael Cardew (1901-1983) to Kwali, in his newly appointed role as senior pottery officer. The role led him to establishing and running the Pottery Training Centre under employment of the Nigerian colonial government from which Kwali and other potters would begin journeying into what became a hybrid practice fusing inidigenous pottery with modern European techniques.
Kwali’s continuation of handbuilding in the Gwari vernacular style throughout her time at the training centre and beyond, even with the introduction of western pottery techniques of glazing and high firing in the kiln (as opposed to open air and staining with natural dyes such as locust bean pods) had at its core, hybridity which I have explained. There is also performativity in the process of making to consider, as repetitive (circular) movements around a mound/lump of clay worked upon by hand and force, shapes earth into a solid form, from which a vessel emerges. As a curator friend aptly noted in one of many exchanges we have had on Kwali and clay [sic] “Ladi Kwali one can imagine indeed made her “traditional” pots by forming the base on an old broken pot and revolving around her work, serving as a human potter’s wheel.”
The contemporary group of artists in this exhibition use clay as part of their wider practice, which runs through performance, installations, videos and sculptures. Across these rich personal, political and socially engaged works clay emerges as a time-based medium offering a range of transformative possibilities are explorations of cyborg futures, fragmented forms, the body as conceptual, fluid, full of contradictions and slippages. I encourage readers to delve deeper into each of their individual practices to engage more with individual approaches to the medium and its histories.
1Agustina Andreoletti (Academy of Media Arts Cologne), “Performative Raw Clay Practices and Ceramic Firing Techniques”, in Culture Machine Vol 17. Thermal Objects edited by Elena Beregow, 2019
2Luci Attala and Lousie Steel, Body Matters: Exploring the Materiality of the Human Body, 2019, Cardiff: Wales University Press.
Dr Jareh Das is a Researcher, Writer, Independent Curator and (occasional) Florist who lives and works between West Africa/the UK. Her interests in (global) modern and contemporary art are cross-disciplinary, although her understanding is filtered through the lens of performance art which informs both her academic and curatorial work.