New Acquisition: Magdalene Odundo Ceramic
“Clay is a simple substance with a complex structure playing havoc without and within our kilns, keeping us guessing and daring to change its natural composition. Yet, like an alchemist seeking to make gold, I continue to seek to create that ultimate elusive simple vessel which will hold magic for me.”
Considered one of the premier ceramicists working today, Magdalene Odundo, born in Kenya, produces ceramic objects whose beauty emanates from their voluptuous forms and shimmering surfaces. These qualities characterize the Museum’s recent acquisition of an early classic Odundo work from 1990: a roundbodied pot with a graceful widemouthed neck and a smooth-burnished dark surface.
Hand-coiled and scraped smooth with a gourd, Odundo’s objects are laboriously produced. After the clay is shaped, it is covered with slip, fired, and then burnished by hand. The object’s color is determined by the firing technique: a first firing in an oxidizing atmosphere turns it red-orange while a second firing in an oxygen-poor atmosphere causes the clay to turn black.
This method places Odundo within the tradition of pottery production in sub-Saharan Africa. In most of Africa pottery is made primarily by women, and Odundo recognizes and reinforces this connection through her work’s anthropomorphic references to the female body. But her work also plays with traditional associations. For one, Odundo sees her works, unlike the utilitarian pots created by women, as containers of form and color. By conceiving her objects not as vessels but as sculpture—traditionally seen as the purview of men—she blurs the boundaries between these gendered realms.
Even as it remains rooted in African ceramic traditions, Odundo’s work reflects outside artistic influences as diverse as ancient Cycladic figurines and the work of the modern sculptor Hans Arp. The influences on Odundo herself are as wide-ranging. Born in 1950, she received her initial training as a graphic artist in her native Kenya. In 1971 she migrated to the United Kingdom, where she worked in commercial and graphic arts but also began experimenting with clay. Dissatisfied with graphic design and interested in exploring clay further, Odundo returned to Kenya and then traveled to Nigeria to study the thousand-year-old techniques women have used to build and fire pottery. An Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), Odundo now lives and works in Surrey, England. A brilliant example of Odundo’s work is now on view in the Museum’s African gallery. According to Chika Okeke-Agulu, associate professor in the Department of Art and Archaeology, “The acquisition of this piece testifies to Odundo’s accomplishment as a master of the ceramic form and affirms the Museum’s commitment to expanding its contemporary African collection. For visitors to the Museum, it opens up discussion about the historical and aesthetic connections between ancient traditions of African art and the work of contemporary artists from the continent. I really look forward to many years of study of this object and of Odundo’s practice with my contemporary African art classes.”
Holly W. Ross
Juliana Ochs Dweck
Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow for Collections Engagement