Magdalene Odundo is a ceramic artist of international renown. Born in Kenya in 1950, she moved to England in 1971 to train, initially, in graphic art, but later turned to clay.
She returned to Africa in 1974-1975, visiting Nigeria and then Kenya, to study the ways women make pottery using traditions of hand-building and firing that are thousands of years old. She also traveled to New Mexico and observed the women of San Ildefonso making their distinctive blackware vessels. Odundo returned to the London area where she still lives to complete a Masters degree at the Royal College of Art.
Odundo's ceramic vessels are rooted in both African and European modernist forms and are informed by her deep study of the world’s ceramic history. She regards her pieces as non-utilitarian containers that are highly gestural and kinetic. She describes their elegant shapes as evoking "the unfurling of a plant, the fall of a Victorian sleeve, the posture of women gossiping, or the fleeting pose of a dancer" (Marla Berns, Ceramic Gestures: New Vessels by Magdalene Odundo, Santa Barbara: University Art Museum, University of California, 1995).
Odundo deliberately blurs the boundaries between the abstract and the figural, making subtle references to the human form, hairstyles, or to the body adorned. Of the work she states, “This form is one I continue to engage with; perhaps because of its anthropomorphic stance and gesture, its relationship to containment, and its showiness.” Her works are all hand-coiled, scraped smooth with a piece of gourd, coated with slips, and burnished to a lustrous surface, usually with a polished stone. She often works on several vessels at once.
Color is dependent upon the firing technique. The black vessels are stuffed with combustibles (wood chips and shavings) and undergo multiple reduction firings. Though Odundo shapes her vessels with exquisite, technical precision, she delights in the "alchemy that occurs in firing," which transforms the "severe, static orange into so many unpredictable shades of black."
Odundo’s work resists category—they are containers that remain empty; they are contemporary works that draw on centuries old techniques; they are inert, yet dynamic in form. As such, the vessel that is part of the Krannert Art Museum collection is an excellent tool for teaching not only about the history and practice of ceramic arts, but also for interrogating the arbitrary distinction between "art" and "craft." Odundo’s resume demonstrates her exceptional stature as an artist whose work has been collected and exhibited by leading museums around the world. Her numerous residencies, workshops, and recent appointment as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in the Queen’s Honor’s List for Services to the Arts testifies to her ongoing dedication to arts education both at home and abroad.
Text by Allyson Purpura, Curator of African Art, Krannert Art Museum, 2014.