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Magdalene Odundo: The Journey of Things.

Magdalene Odundo: The Journey of Things.

Hepworth Wakefield

16 February-2 June 2019

'Objects hold the knowledge of our history.' Magdalene Odundo, one of the world's most important artists working in ceramics, draws constant inspiration from other times and cultures. This major retrospective exhibition, 'The Journey of Things', assembles more than 50 of Odundo's works alongside a wonderfully eclectic selection of objects chosen by the artist to illustrate the rich range of making that has informed her work.

Born in Kenya in 1950, she came to the UK in 1971, initially following a career in commercial art until she eventually found ceramics. A chance meeting with Michael Cardew in St Ives led to her travelling to Abuja in Nigeria and studying under Ladi Kwali, the revered ceramicist who appears on Nigeria's paper currency. Here she learned the traditional Gbari method of hand-building which is the foundation of her practice along with the use of terra sigillata, the ancient technique of suspending clay in water to seal the form and burnishing it with stones and polishing tools. These 'low-tech' practices became her hallmark resulting in delicately refined forms and subtle colouration, at times resembling the infinite variety of a cloudscape. Her choice of techniques was not only aesthetic but also practical as she thought she would return to Africa to work and knew electricity would be very expensive.

Farshid Moussavi's exhibition design creates a seamless, flowing series of spaces where the plinths, or 'terrains' as Moussavi calls them, take on the surface qualities of David Chipperfield's poured concrete floors. The overall effect is of a natural landscape, like a river course that meanders, offering multiple viewpoints, populated on its banks and islands by Odundo's vivid pots and the dazzling diversity of objects that have inspired her, drawn from around the world and spanning 3,000 years of human creativity.

The metaphor of journey, of physical movement through the world, also speaks to the particular properties of clay pots: they are a dynamic art form that can survive millennia; whether as objects to be handled and used, or in simply the viewing and engaging with them, pots insist on movement. In the central gallery of the exhibition is a breath-taking display of Odundo's standalone works: her pots take their space in a bold, spare arrangement that can be viewed in the round, unmediated by the usual museum glass case. Elsewhere her work is juxtaposed with historical forms of ancient Egypt, Cycladic, pre-Columbian and African art, with sculpture, painting, contemporary textile and Elizabethan dress, each exploring a fascinating complementarity and dialogue.

Relationships to the human body--especially the female form--are powerfully played out in the exhibition: included are a Henry Moore reclining nude, a Rodin dancer and an early study drawing by Picasso of a female nude for Les Demoiselles d'Avignon inspired by a Congolese carved figure shown to him by Matisse. Odundo's pots have strong female identities--cinched waists, swollen bellies, long elegant necks and flared ruff-like rims. Odundo studied Elizabethan ruffs and corsets while a museum educator at Kensington Palace, and as a great admirer of Ghanaian Kente weaving she is intensely aware of the sacred function of Asante cloth. The fluidity, delicacy and poise of Odundo's pots are made explicit in the juxtaposition with Edgar Degas' sculpture of the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. As a student at the Royal College of Art, Odundo would sketch rehearsals at the Royal Ballet School. In 2004 she commented, 'I was attracted to something that is almost a kind of electricity in how pliable the body can be. Thus with plastic, malleable clay ... while it is capable of being shaped to capture that mesmerising, hypnotic achievement, the fired pot ends up in a motionless state. That is what I try to capture.'

Odundo remembers the importance of the pots she would be given as a child to fetch water and the physical discipline required to balance a pot on your head, and get the vessel home intact and full. The twin ideas of containment and movement are very powerful concerns in Odundo's work. So too is the healing nature of pots for their use in funerary rites: they have the capacity to remember, even embody, someone who has died, forging a link between the living and the dead. A series of tall columnar pots are included in the section on 'Spiritual Vessels'; these are the largest pots she has ever made and relate to bereavement. In the Kenyan tradition of Kigango, if a person had been generous in life, a tall, elaborately carved wooden post abstractly representing their qualities would be erected in their honour so as to appease their spirit. It was these abstract or stylised qualities that most interested European artists like Picasso or Gaudier-Brzeska.

Her pots have great beauty but also great complexity, as Odundo says 'the extreme edge is the first contact the viewer has of the work', and 'The rims of my pots take hours to get right and perfect'. Sharply angled rims, or spines of spikes conjuring up a sense of danger and pain, co-exist with softer, sensuous forms. Although unseen, the interiors of her pots are highly worked and are, for Odundo, as important as the outer surfaces. She sees the vessel as a body, with an inner and outer integrity she relates to wholeness and healing: the inside of a pot is refined to represent clarity and calmness of the soul. That which is known about the pot but not seen, constitutes its secret and invisible power.

Sibylla Gbadamosi Wood is a writer on ceramics

Caption: Magdalene Odundo: The Journey of Things, installation view [c] Lewis Ronald
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Author:Wood, Sibylla Gbadamosi
Publication:Art and Christianity
Date:Jun 19, 2019
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