The story of internationally acclaimed potter - Magdalene Odundo

One of the greatest contemporary ceramicist to emerge from the Royal College of Art in the U.K. since Elizabeth Fritsch is Kenyan-born Magdalene Namakhiya Anyango Odundo.  Her story is that of a heroine now, at last, being acknowledged in her birth country and celebrated and revered abroad.

Odundo lives, breathes, and talks art – literally.  Currently, she is a Professor of Ceramics at the University of Creative Arts based at its Craft Study Centre, Farnham, England.

Odundo’s handmade ceramic pieces can be found in historical museums and in contemporary public and private collections in Europe, North America, and Africa.  Phillips de Pury recently auctioned one of her earlier works at the hammer price of £30,000– a tidy sum for a contemporary ceramic piece.  “Pottery is a human art that has significance as material culture in all societies.  It plays an important role in all aspects of the study of human sciences, such as in archaeology, anthropology, ethnology and museology.   Ceramics has been valued for its artistic as well as its utilitarian use.  There is hardly any society that does not use or handle pottery in some form.  Pottery is used for its function in domestic settings, and yet it has its highly spiritual function that goes beyond the everyday.  In most societies, pottery is used in ceremonies such as rites of passage. It is just fantastic!” says Odundo as she explains the significance of her work.

Born and brought up in Mombasa

Odundo was born in Nairobi, Kenya and brought up at the coastal town of Mombasa. The bug of art bit her at a young age.  After high school, she apprenticed in commercial art design with S.H. Benson advertising agency (later acquired by Ogilvy & Mather).  During this period she was also studying on a part-time basis at the Nairobi Polytechnic  Here she learned about layout, design, typography, typesetting and graphics and commercial art.     In 1971, she left S.H. Benson and worked briefly as an assistant designer at the Neon General Sign Design Company in the industrial area in Nairobi.  Towards the end of that year, Odundo left for England where she took a foundation course in art in Cambridge before continuing her studies in commercial art.  This was her turning point as she discovered her growing interest in something more than commercial art.  “I grew disenchanted with advertising and commercial art as a tool for consumer-led materialism. It becomes irrelevant to me and I lost my creative instincts when working on projects. 

I began looking for other creative avenues and began making applications to other art colleges.  In 1973, I accepted a place at West Surrey College of Art and Design in Farnham, for me one of the best liberal arts colleges in the U.K.   Here I spent the next three years in the Three Dimensional Design department focusing on ceramics, printmaking and photography.”  “The rest is history!”  Odundo graduated in 1976 with first class honours degree.

During her undergraduate studies, Odundo became very immersed in the anthropological relationship between ceramics and material culture.   She acknowledges using museums and libraries to underpin research for her practice. During this period she began focusing her research on African studies enabling her to make comparative studies of African and other world cultures.   She returned to Kenya to research material for her dissertation.  Her dissertation looked at the relationship between ceramics and the rites of passage in societies around Lake Nyanza (Lake Victoria) using the rites amongst the Abalukhiya as a case study. 

Odundo’s approach to her ceramics goes beyond field studies.  She engages in a hands-on academic and practical search for knowledge in her field.  She believes that knowledge and experience are gained through practice and therefore attaches much importance for a thorough studentship in whichever profession a young person wishes to pursue.   “That is why libraries and museums have played such an important aspect of my research.”  As a student at Farnham, Odundo took every opportunity to visit collections like the British Museum. Through one of her influential lecturers, John Donne, she discovered the Petrie Museum of Egyptology, University College London, which remains one of her favourites.  

Life is art

The practical and academic interest in her work is evident when hearing Odundo speak of her work.   Odundo’s grounding in art has a rich academic history which naturally oozes in her ceramic pieces.  Ceramics for her is philosophical and spiritual:   a lifestyle and a part of everyday life. For her art is life ... and life is art.  

In the late 1970s, Odundo toured California, visiting yet more museums and private collections with world cultures.  “I have always been astonished and amazed at how classical ceramics continues to be contemporary even after 5,000 - 2,000 BCE.”

Almost all of Odundo’s pieces are magical, capturing the eye and the human soul.  By perusing catalogues from the various exhibitions she has held around the world, no one piece is similar to another.   What about her academic background, how does that blend with her talent?  I ask.     “My academic interest is a passion for knowledge. If you have a passion for something, you are inclined to study it in depth.  The knowledge is a vehicle that enables me to understand myself,  my profession and allows me to continue to be creative.” 

For Odundo, art is much more than talent.  “While I believe everybody is born with a talent to be creative, this talent needs to be informed and nurtured.”  “Talent is often a misused word.   British painter Francis Bacon (1909 – 1992) said, ‘talent is one part of it – being an artist requires discipline.’”  Odundo believes you have to put in the work to gain the experience, knowledge and to become a master in your craft.  “It is hard work!”   Odundo clarifies this by stating that:  “The need to want to make an object doesn’t just come from the fact that you can. It comes from the fact that you immerse yourself in the making while continuously reflecting on the ideas.  When you dream about your next object, you get up and create it.  Creativity comes through engagement and participation, with each piece of work requiring individuality.”

Passion, creativity and thought are all ingredients of Odundo’s work. “I spend much time thinking about what I am going to make. I think of an idea, appropriate the ideas from what I have seen before, and abstract concepts from all my observations.  Factoring into this are years of observing, listening, thinking and being there.” 

The process of making work begins with the formulation of a concept.  Odundo then draws distinct shapes and forms that will form her pieces.  This phase of drawing Odundo describes as having ups and downs. “The thinking and drawing are where you get all the blocks and interruptions.  But once the concepts have been formalised and sieved, I can begin handling the clay.”  All of Odundo’s pieces have spent a lot of time in her hands.  She takes the clay through a ritual of kneading, mixing, and kneading again until the clay becomes elastic. “I don’t use the wheel. I use a method that combines sculpting, coiling, curving and forming. With clay, like other practical processes, there are rituals to perform before the creation of the object.”

Her clay methods have evolved over time with influence from traditional methods used in Kenya, other African countries, Asia, South America, and generally most non-industrial societies.  “In the recent past, Europeans and American anthropologists have often referred to these techniques as being primitive.   I say that these technologies have evolved over more than 2,000 years of hand building.  These methods are highly skilful and technical, and much knowledge and experience are required to have mastery over the materials and techniques. 

I love working with my hands because of the personal contact with the material.  At this point the analytical process becomes secondary;  the making becomes less visceral and more tactile.”

Apart from her hands, she uses tools made of gourds, bamboo, and plastic. The surfaces are then polished, burnished, and applied with a thin coating of terra sigillata engobe, then polished again before firing in the kiln.  The red terra-cotta pieces are fired once in an oxygen-rich atmosphere while the black terra-cotta pieces go back into the kiln for multiple firings to undergo a carbonisation process.  Odundo works with terra-cotta firing clays from any country but often, when travelling and demonstrating internationally, she will adapt to local clays.

At any given time, Odundo is working on two or three pieces.  However, it takes often takes her six to eight weeks to complete a single piece of work before the firing process.  Generally, her exhibitions, which take eighteen to twenty-four months to prepare, are made of between 10 - 12 ceramic pieces.  What takes physical time is the artistic attributes one imbues in the work, the refinement, embellishment and the final animation of the work.   “The hardest part is reaching perfection – achieving what you had envisioned the piece to look like.”   The demands of teaching over the years have made it difficult to be prolific in output. 

In the first 15 years of her career, Odundo held an exhibition every year. Currently, she holds one exhibition every two years. Part of being a renowned artist comes with the obligation and invitation to participate in other activities.  Odundo serves on various national and international advisory boards, works on collaborative projects and lectures internationally.  She has been recently appointed a trustee of the National Society for Education Art and Design and is a member of the Art Workers Guild.  All of the obligations impact on an artist’s time, making it difficult to balance the studio and these other activities.  

Odundo has been working in other media through invitation as an artist in residence.  She has recently participated in a printmaking workshop in Ulster, Belfast, completing a comprehensive body of work on paper.   “Metamorphosis and Transformation,” an installation in glass has been on show at the Museum of Glass, Tacoma, Washington, USA, a culmination of an artist-in-residency taken in the summer of 2011.  

Odundo started making a living out of ceramics in 1982 after she finished her post-graduate studies and started exhibiting her works. Sadly, she made a mistake many new artists make - she failed to archive her work and hence does not know where all of her work is located.  However, she and her agent, Anthony Slater Ralph, are attempting to rectify this omission.

She is very shy to place a financial value on her pieces. “I feel the value of work is intrinsic and perhaps better assessed in terms of its longevity and repute.  Resale of works places an onerous burden on the artist because the value of a historical piece is judged on its rarity in contrast to ongoing present work. 

One of her more unusual pieces of work, a biographical piece, is in the collection of the National Museum of Kenya, Nairobi.  I asked Odundo if there were any pieces which were given special attention or which were created specifically for commissions. Odundo says that all her work demands equal attention when making but acknowledges that at an exhibition there will always be some pieces that are more distinctive than others.  These pieces will be immediately snapped up by museums or big collectors.  “My favourite pieces include the vessel loaned to the Murumbi Permanent Collection here at the National Archives, Nairobi. To be honest, all the pieces that are in both public and private collections are special to me. They are all my favourites. They are all my creation. They are my children.”   

Most artists will tell you that they are very possessive of their creations. At the same time, artists create work that matures with time and they are able to let go of the pieces into the possession of others for equal appreciation.   Odundo is happy that her pieces are part of people’s lives. “Art makes us human. Making objects distinguishes us from other animals. We surround ourselves with objects: clothes, jewellery, etc. You select a piece of work because it pleases you. It beautifies your quality of life; it makes you feel good, and it elevates you. My work is about me, but it is also hopefully made to enhance the material culture of our society. A successful piece of work for me is one that moves an individual in a personal manner.  Some people have remarked at how my work makes them want to stand on their tiptoes to dance; some have said it has made them want to pick up their saxophones to play music that they haven’t played in a long time; others say it makes them happy, some say it reminds them of the human body and still others say it gives them a sense of domesticity and comfort.  All these remarks give me reassurance that I have accomplished something with my creativity and contributed to the history of art.”

Not utilitarian 

Odundo’s vessels are not utilitarian.  One cannot put fluid in them.  They are not fired to vitrifying temperatures and are, therefore, like all terra-cotta, porous.   They are not fired to high temperatures because Odundo wishes to retain the organic quality of the clay in her work.  

When Odundo had her first exhibition at the African Heritage she remembers her relatives being astonished at the refinement of the use of clay in her work. To her, this was the greatest accolade she could have hoped for.   “I realized that my choice of working in clay had been justified and that clay had this wonderful, universal language with no barriers to appreciation or understanding of the objects made.  It was a historical moment for me.  Apart from music, ceramics is the most universal art form in the world.”  

As I said before Odundo has a deeply philosophical relationship with pottery.

She talks about clay in terms of a universal material that has a long connection to life on earth, linked religiously to creation, historically important to archaeologists, and the only material that tells us something about our human existence past and present.   Notionally it has a duality that links us to the before and the after. If I am buried with my pots, they will survive me and when archaeologists one day dig me up, they read my history through my vessels and chards which remain.  Ceramics last a lifetime. We would not be able to talk about the history of humanity without ceramics.”

I wondered what if Odundo had stayed in Kenya and not left for the UK.  Would her art career have been shaped to a similar status?   Odundo said she has always kept her close connections and ties with Kenya.  After all, this is her ancestral home.  “Well, you ask what if...  I probably would be accomplished in commercial art and advertising.  Before I left Kenya my art career had already started taking shape.  I had won several art competitions, including the major National Youth Festival Poster competition, the Blood Donors Poster competition, and an Esso Calendar competition.  I wasn’t going to Europe because I had not made it here in Kenya.   If I had stayed here it would have been a different story.  I would probably be a success, but it would have been in advertising, a less fulfilling endeavour.”

What Odundo's pieces mean

In a nutshell, what do Odundo’s pieces represent?   “Spirit, movement, ideas. I capture negative and positive spaces, solids, voids; I try to express a human spirit in my work; I attempt to abstract the qualities of being in my work, and I try to reflect some of the rituals and rites of passage which concern us as human beings. I attempt to move, to dance and to arrest in motion moments of stillness that are crucial to my existence.”

As a master ceramicist, Odundo is glad to be part of making history through art.

I asked her, how does she see the future of pottery in Africa?  How much interest is there in ceramics in Africa? Odundo considers the teaching of art and in particular ceramics as being as important as any other subject.  Ceramics is a science and technology that contributes to a diversity of industry, commerce and the art of a nation. It should be taught alongside other technologies of science and maths at all levels of education, and especially at the university level.

Students should be encouraged to learn the historical relevance of the science of pottery and its contribution to society. It is a mistaken belief that one cannot be fully employed within the creative industry.  Architecture is linked to ceramics. And, ceramics is linked to palaeontology, archaeology, anthropology and history. Teaching art and design in ceramics would encourage the growth of the ceramic industries in all its forms in Kenya and throughout Africa.

There exists one-dimensional thinking of art practice, however, people forget that their houses are built from bricks designed by ceramic specialists and scientists, their bathrooms and kitchens are created by ceramic designers and the pots and antiquities seen in museums were created by potters.  There is a wonderful tradition of ceramics in Africa that will continue to inspire generations of young ceramicists and potters. Introducing subjects like the science and art of ceramics into our education curriculum is the greatest challenge we face in this generation.