Designer: Magdalene Odundo (British, born Nairobi, Kenya, 1950)
Medium: Red clay
Dimensions: 19 3/4 x 13 in. (50.2 x 33 cm)
Credit Line: Purchase, The Katcher Family Foundation Inc. Gift, and Gift of Susan Dwight Bliss, by exchange, 1998
Accession Number: 1998.328
The sinuous ceramic vessels created by contemporary artist Magdalene Odundo have been praised for their elegant aesthetic appeal. While their beauty can derive from the simple appreciation of their graceful forms, Odundo's vessels blend multiple associations and meanings in a manner that makes them simultaneously familiar and novel.
This example from the Museum's collection is comprised of a round-bodied pot and an elongated, wide-mouthed neck. There are four small nodules at the base of the neck, and two more centered on opposite sides of the main body. Odundo creates her works using the coiling method-a practice thousands of years old and found worldwide. She begins by pulling a cone of clay upward as its middle is hollowed out to form the body of the vessel. Many of her pieces feature a round, voluptuous body; variation is expressed in the profile and gesture of the neck. Within this limited vocabulary of shapes, Odundo focuses on small physical additions and modifications to maximize aesthetic impact. It is through firing that Odundo's vessels are transformed and finished. A piece is fired in one of two ways: in a purely oxidizing atmosphere, which turns the vessel a natural luminous red-orange, or in an oxidizing followed by a reducing atmosphere, which produces a rich charcoal-black. The gray/black tones of this piece are probably the result of partial reduction during the firing process. The exact outcome of firing is uncontrollable, adding a small element of chance to the artistic process. In this case, it may have aided in forming the abstract-expressionist qualities of the color scheme.
Odundo's work explicitly acknowledges a link to the pottery traditions of Africa-indeed, in much of Africa, ceramic is a medium primarily associated with female creativity, and the anthropomorphic references to the female body in her work literalize that connection. The work, however, reveals a thorough knowledge of non-African traditions, including the complex vessel shapes of ancient Cyprus, the geometry of Cycladic figures, the heavy forms of Japan's Jomon culture, and the unusual gourd-shaped pots of the Pokot of Kenya, among many others. Although Odundo was born in Kenya and received initial training as a graphic artist there, it was in England that she explored an interest in clay, after which she traveled to Kenya, Nigeria, the southwest United States, and many other locales to study indigenous pottery techniques. She then completed a master's degree at the Royal College of Art in London, where she continues to live and work. The blend of influences present in her work prevents Odundo from being pigeonholed as a strictly African artist. Her profound exploration of the technical and expressive possibilities of the ceramic medium has created work unique within the landscape of contemporary art.