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Tableware as Sculpture and Poetry: Ozioma Onuzulike's Ceramics.

For over a decade and a half, Ozioma Onuzulike has created tableware that has a way of addressing the viewer not only as sculpture but also as visual poetry. Yet, while he exhibits impressive technical skill, his works allude to chance and tend to occupy, as metaphor, a fertile conceptual territory. (1) At first glance, they appear simple and seem to contradict the basic function they are made for, which is to serve at meals. However, on a second look, they confront us with the utilitarian dimension that we are used to and consequently invite us to appreciate the forms and textures in relation to their function. Depending on his creative temperament, Onuzulike makes his work figurative or abstract, natural or artificial--either to create easily recognisable forms that perform a known role, or non-representational forms that play on our assumptions regarding their purpose.

Trained at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he now teaches ceramics, Onuzulike has imbibed the exploratory approach to art practice that has characterised the Nsukka Art School since the 1960s. At Nsukka he takes the time for self-examination and gently struggles to stretch his practice "beyond its immediate constraints through creative innovation and studio experiments". (2) In fact, it is the zeal for innovation that propels his creative adventures in pottery where he has always strived to do things differently. This has marked him out from the conservative traditional and contemporary pottery practices that pervade many regions of the world, particularly Africa. Looking at the stylistic features of Mende pottery historically, Barbara E. Frank observes a basic conservatism in the forms of vessels produced between now and a century ago. (3) It is in an attempt to achieve something new that Onuzulike appropriates unconventional media and approaches to pottery production. He has explored the intricate relationship between clay and a variety of different natural and artificial materials to produce mixed-media sculptures. This article is an examination of his tablewares in terms of their artistic and conceptual qualities, especially the ways by which they transcend their utilitarian function and yield metaphorical allusions.

Onuzulike has often combined multiple methods in producing his tableware. In spite of their many formal differences, a number of them express a sense of passage through the sculpture processes of modelling, casting and carving, which make them appear quite poetical. He has also employed different tools (many of which are improvised) in producing each of his wares. While discussing a selection of his teapots and cups as installations, he made an insightful description of the techniques and procedures involved in their formation. According to him:

Cylindrical shapes were produced using the potter's wheel and variously carved using a little 'gouge' (locally fabricated by bending metallic hairpins and foisting their ends into empty barrels of pen or markers). At the early stages of hardening (before the leather-hard stage), the thrown forms were altered or distorted to take new shapes ... carving geometric and organic forms into the vessels was carried out during the early leather-hard stage when the 'gouge' could move in and out of the clay without sticking onto them. (4)

The meanings that many of Onuzulike's tableware incorporate are characterised by the sinuous designs he engraves onto their surfaces, as well as the play of flickering hues of glaze that he ostentatiously layers and juxtaposes with one another, inside and outside of the vessels, in a manner that portrays the wares as an intersection of ceramics, sculpture and painting. The artist actualises this in a modest exploration of texture, colour and pattern to achieve an independent visual language that could become his signature style. In fact, many of his ceramics share a formal and textural trait that characterises them in visual terms, which make their identity unquestionable.

Traditionally, carving is a method that is associated with sculpture; but Onuzulike appropriated it not only as a means to enhance the formal quality of his tableware items but also to strengthen their figurative and contextual elements. Besides, the apparent subjection of his wheel-thrown wares to distortion suggests a design sensibility aimed toward initiating physical upset that paves the way for metaphorical associations with deformation and disorientation. While this approach elevates them to a position where they can easily switch roles through eccentric display arrangements, the incisions on the ceramics reference political and socio-religious throes in a country such as Nigeria. (5)

Onuzulike appears to be a ringing voice in a corrupt society. Many of his works are mirrors of decadence and oppression as suggested in their themes, forms and arrangements, as in Casualties I, 2000, Termites' Visit II, 1998, and War Victims, 1998, respectively. But there are also a significant number of works, particularly stoneware, that represent everyday contemporary culture. In Ji (Yam tubers) and Yam Bodies, 2013-2015 (Figs 1, 2a and 2b), the subject matter is based on a staple food in Nigeria regarded particularly by the Igbo society (to which the artist belongs) as the king of all crops. The tubers are prepared in a variety of ways including roasting, boiling and pounding. In reference to their fragility, Onuzulike sees yam tubers as a metaphor for human vulnerability. He also sees them as historical documents by alluding to the ways in which the form and size of yams are affected by the seasons--an idea that relates to the historical circumstances of one's birth, growth and death.

While Onuzulike's Ji series is a set of eccentric lidless bowls cast from concrete moulds taken from different sizes and shapes of natural yam tubers, his Yam Bodies are lidded. However, they all have their interiors smoothened and glost fired. The inherent earth colour of the baked clay, as well as the skin texture of the natural yam, successfully picks up and registers on the work through his moulds, and complicate the viewers' conclusions. When covered with lids (as in Yam Bodies), they are not easily recognisable as dishes, but rather look like fresh tubers waiting to be roasted or peeled and boiled. On a deeper engagement with the work, a new experience unfolds, provoking musings on the meaning of the word 'yam' and what it stands for, especially in the Igbo tradition. With the innovative use of casting techniques and adoption of realistic forms of natural yam tubers in crafting Yam Bodies, Onuzulike has created a spectacle that tends to whet the viewer's appetite for roasted yam served with fresh red palm oil. As tableware, they agitate imagination, making the viewer wonder what effect they would create if lumps of boiled or roasted yam is served in them, and the idiom they may hold.

Boxers, 2013, compels a critical response to the contemporary fashion trend among youths referred to as 'sagging', which allows the trousers or shorts to hang loosely round the buttocks, or below them. Onuzulike sees this development as an erosion of values that could be more aptly described as 'corrosion'. He prefers to concretise his disgust at the trend by likening it to the potency of salt, which can destroy even the strongest iron. Contemplating the work, it appears to promise appropriate contexts in reference to decadence, considering its shape, colour and texture. Cast from a cement mould taken from a yam tuber, Boxers (Fig. 3) is an organically shaped ceramic dish designed to (probably) hold table salt. While the inner surface is carved, smoothened and properly coated with opaque glaze, the external surface displays a rough textured layer of light grey glaze 'tarnished' by the effect of glazes oozing through the cracks and pores of the yam's 'skin'. This creates a lower band of darker shades of grey that define, what looks like, a patterned cloth.

Onuzulike has also devoted quite some time in exploring tea-sets as imageries for aggression. In each exploration and arrangement, the teacups seem to represent combatants, while the teapot appears as an armoured tank. Members of each set are either slightly or substantially warped, to illustrate different levels of casualties that every warring party sustains through war. The brilliance of each set depends on how bleak the future appears to Onuzulike at the time of production (owing to constant media reports around him about wars). Analysing his tea-pot, Onuzulike writes that it "makes unconscious references to armoured tanks, its spout representing the threatening nozzle through which hot liquid is poured". He goes further to observe that "when a user cuts the pouring, a 'ceasefire' situation is 'recorded"'. (6)

As his tea-set is displayed on a table, with the tea-pot and every tea-cup taking position in their saucers in readiness for service, the viewer is drawn to appreciate how Onuzulike harmoniously integrates form and function in creating 'figurative' tableware that apparently transmute within the domain of ceramic sculpture. Ceasefire I, Ceasefire II and War Victims, 2013 and 2006, are good examples of the tea-set series in this category. In the tea-sets--and this also applies to every other kind of tableware that he has created--texture and distortion appear to be his main strategy for achieving consistency in style, and for giving every individual member of a set or series a character. The warped and gouged cylindrical trunks of the tea-sets, which are equipped with distorted handles, tell open-ended stories as they are set on tables, and while they transport tea to the mouth.

Some of the allusions arising from Onuzulike's works stem from the interest and grip he has on poetry. His tableware may appear simple, which ultimately lends them power, but they are invested with aesthetic and metaphoric tensity. For Alu Leach-Jones, a sculptor who is also influenced by poetry, metaphor is a major means of freeing the imagination. (7) In Twin Pots and Three Star Saucer, 2010 and 2013 (Figs 7 and 8), for instance, Onuzulike demonstrates his interest in taking tableware beyond a level where they function as mere utilitarian objects, by forming them into narratives that are infused with profound visual effect and enigmatic propositions.

For the production of Three Star Saucer, Onuzulike impressed geometric patterns from carved wooden roulettes onto a clay slab that was at its early leather-hard stage. He folded and pressed it into a desired shape and then fitted it with three clay studs (at uniform intervals on the rim), which eventually received stamped floral patterns. Upon drying, it was glazed by using the pouring technique which allowed him to explore overlaps and transparencies. When making Twin Pots, Onuzulike took a different approach. Each of the two pots was cast from a common mould, partly padded with jute fabric. The mould was charged with pliable clay (divided into three parts, with a different quantity of black copper oxide mixed into each) which was gently pressed bit-by-bit into place to create a dramatic colour effect and texture.

Onuzulike's tableware reaches beyond aesthetics and utilitarian function and manages to directly engage the viewer in conversation, sometimes posing more questions than can be answered. From the beginning of his career as a ceramist, Onuzulike has always believed that the creative process constitutes a vocabulary through which a given expression is composed. He has chosen the path of studio exploration that gives credence to the humble exploitation of hybrid procedure which inspires on all fronts. His ongoing aim is to break the material restrictions that the duo of clay and glaze represent. In summary, Onuzulike continues to search for ultimate eloquence by seeking ways of handling clay and glaze in a manner that enables them to carry the full weight of his ever-expanding visual vocabulary.

Eva Obodo teaches sculpture in the Department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Chijioke Onuorah teaches sculpture and drawing in the Department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka. George Odoh teaches painting, drawing and fine arts criticism in the Department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka.


(1.) Michael Wilson, How to Read contemporary Art: Experiencing the Art of the 21st Century, Antwerp; New York: Ludion; Abrams (2009), p. 38.

(2.) Chike Aniakor made this comment while examining the ceramic art of Vincent Ali, a ceramics artist of the Nsukka Art School, Nigeria. We find this a fitting description of Onuzulike's practice. See Aniakor 'Ceramic Art: Ali's Coiled Idiom', in Vincent Ali, Rhythms and Contours (Exhibition catalogue), Lagos: National Gallery of Modern Art (2001).

(3.) Barbra E. Frank, Mande Potters and Leather Workers: Art and Heritage in West Africa, Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press (1998), p. 33.

(4.) Ozioma Onuzulike. 'Tableware Installations as Art Form: The Tea Set Example', in Abraka Humanities Review, Vol. 2, No. 2 (2009), pp. 16-17.

(5.) Onuzulike, 'Tableware Installations as Art Form ... ,' p. 21.

(6.) Onuzulike, 'Tableware Installations as Art Form ... ,' p. 19.

(7.) See Jonathan Goodman, 'Elements of Measure, Classically Inclined: Alun Leach-Jones,' Sculpture, Vol. 34, No. 1 (2015), p.53.

Caption: Twin Pots Image Credit: Eva Obodo.

Caption: Ceasefire II Image Credit: Eva Obodo.

Caption: Yam Bodies (lids partly open) Image Credit: Eva Obodo.

Caption: Boxers, 2013 Image Credit: Eva Obodo

Caption: Ceasefire I Image Credit: Eva Obodo
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Author:Obodo, Eva; Onuora, Chijioke; Odoh, George
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Geographic Code:6NIGR
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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