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Magdalene Odundo's exhibit at Fitzwilliam Museum marks her return to Cambridge

STIR speaks with the Kenya-born ceramic artist about her creative practice, her memories as an art student at Cambridge, the materiality of clay, and her works on display at the museum.

by Girinandini SinghPublished on : Jan 30, 2022

One of the foremost ceramicists working today, Magdalene AN Odundo DBE was born in Kenya wherein she received her foundational training as a graphic artist. In 1971 she moved to Cambridge, UK, enrolling into the Cambridge Art School where she intended to continue her training in graphic design but on encountering the inspirational Zimbabwe-born pottery teacher, Zoë Ellison, she switched to ceramics and pottery. Ellison opened a world of creative expression for Odundo, encouraging her early attempts with clay, introducing her to the works of contemporary British potters. About her teacher’s impact on her own practice, Odundo says, “It’s through Zoe Ellison particularly, going to her classes more and more, getting interested in watching her teach but also watching her become much more interested in me as a person and me working with clay. I can remember her saying to me when I was struggling with liking my BTech Commercial Art Course, she got me to put together a portfolio which was then viewed by Henry Hammond who would come to Kettle’s Yard for an exhibition.”

Pot, Magdalene Odundo| Girinandini Singh|STIRworld
Pot, Magdalene Odundo Image: Girinandini Singh

Cambridge too, as a city became a space of inspiration for the artist who remembers fondly her visits to the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. “If you look at ceramics, it is always telling a story,” the artist says at the Fitzwilliam Museum exhibit of her work, titled Magdalene Odundo in Cambridge, and the works that inspired her practice, “There is no single culture that does not make pottery.” The versatile nature of the medium seems to have become a space of meditation for Odundo, who was influenced by the collections of ceramic works from around the world housed in the Cambridge museums as she developed and found her way into her own practice.

The exhibit at the Fitzwilliam Museum is structured around the objects that would have inspired or influenced Odundo’s work. “The selection at the exhibit,” she says, “shows the versatility of clay as a form of expression and a material.” This preoccupation with material is reflected in Odundo’s pieces which are steeped in the tradition of sub-Saharan Africa, where many a pottery traditions belonged to the feminine domain. Odundo references this through her work which plays with depictions of the female body, however now, these pieces move away from their utilitarian function to artistic expression contemplating gendered boundaries we set as a society, the roles we hold space for, and the ways in which these are defied. Community and tradition seem to be important themes in the artist’s creative process and as an extension of her practise she has embarked on trips to Nigeria and Kenya, where she trains women potters in the artistic tradition of ceramics and pottery.

(Anticlockwise)Teapot, Zoe Ellison; Bowl, Lucie Rie; Bottle Form, Zoe Ellison |Girinandini Singh | STIRworld
(Anticlockwise) Teapot, Zoe Ellison; Bowl, Lucie Rie; Bottle Form, Zoe Ellison Image: Girinandini Singh

“I describe my work as pared down forms. My ultimate goal is to create a form that defies any explanation,” she says, further continuing about her work, “My vocabulary is very minimal, in the sense that my own work I hope it’s not in need of wordy and a sort of huge vocabulary, you know you can understand it from a visual aspect. For me visual literacy, looking at work and having that work be empathetic with – you as a viewer and me as a maker – is much more important, than having to find nuances and meaning within the work that may not be there. I am not saying that people shouldn’t take feelings and transcribe words that they want to imbue in the work, but I think the work has to come first and then all the language that describes it follows on.”

Pot, 2019, Magdalene Odundo| STIRworld
Pot, 2019, Magdalene Odundo Image: Girinandini Singh

There is a very particular and a somewhat labour intensive process that is favoured by Odundo in her creative practice. The clay that is once shaped is covered with slip, placed in fire and finally it is polished by hand. The colour of the work comes during the process of baking by fire, a very specific technique that is native to the African tradition. The object is first fired in an oxidizing atmosphere where it turns a colour of red-orange and then to turn it into a colour that is closer to black, it is again placed in the fire in an oxygen poor atmosphere where the clay turns into a dark shade. “When I build my work,” the artist says, “I concentrate on the interior of the vessel, with a visual awareness that the exterior takes its form from the internal template. Although the inside of each piece is hidden,” she writes, “and enclosed, my hope is that the viewer can imagine it by examining the exterior and the empty space that the piece occupies. This idea of inside and outside is very similar to how we see ourselves as people.”

(Anticlockwise) Waste Jar with black and red designs, A:shiwi [Zuni] people New Mexico; Bowl, decorated with four birds, Nazca culture; Bowl with abstract pattern, broken before burial, Mimbres culture|STIRworld
(Anticlockwise) Waste Jar with black and red designs, A:shiwi [Zuni] people New Mexico; Bowl, decorated with four birds, Nazca culture; Bowl with abstract pattern, broken before burial, Mimbres culture Image: Girinandini Singh

The show, which is specifically centred around the role played by Cambridge as a city and a creative space on Odundo’s practice, is an interesting curatorial premise as it focuses on the impact that museum objects, diverse cultural perspectives and conversing with one’s own roots has had on the creative process of the artist. “When I first arrived in Cambridge, my intention was to pursue a year's foundation course, my intention was to then continue working in the advertising agency,” she continues, “but I was discovering areas in art practice that I hadn’t been exposed to. I was also making a lot of friends, I was getting involved in a lot of activities. I started integrating with a number of people within Cambridge itself particularly from Africa, the Caribbean, and so everything was really exciting both practically and intellectually.”

Magdalene Odundo in Cambridge will be on display at The Fitzwilliam Museum until July 24, 2022.

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