Magdalene Odundo: Kenya’s World Class Ceramicist

MAGDALENE ODUNDO: Kenya’s world class ceramicist
April 24, 2012
Published in Daily Nation DN2
by Margaretta wa Gacheru
Her hand-sculpted vessels are worth tens of thousands of dollars, yet the world-acclaimed Kenyan ceramicist Magdalene Odundo refuses to talk about money. She’s more inclined to talk concepts rather than hard cash, aesthetics rather than rates of exchange, despite the fact that her vessels have been viewed, sold and placed in permanent art collections, both public and private, all over the world—from the British Museum in London to the Smithsonian and National Art Gallery in Washington, DC to numerous university, museum exclusive gallery collections all across Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, and even the Middle East.
In Kenya recently to attend the African Heritage 40thanniversary celebration and to receive an AH Lifetime Achievement Award, Magdalene had just one of her vessels on display (under glass) at Alliance Francaise this month, on loan from the Kenya National Archives and the Joseph Murumbi Collection.
But her video presentation, given at the AH opening night, offered a revelatory show of her award-winning clay pots. It also exposed the scholarly side of the senior professor of ceramics at the University for the Creative Arts, Farnham in the UK, who says she loves teaching and supervising post-graduate students’ research almost as much as she delights in working with clay.
Born in Nairobi, Magdalene was raised in Mombasa and briefly in Mumbai, far away from Bunyale where her family originally comes from.  Western Kenya is also where there’s a long tradition of women potters, including her maternal grandmother Anyango who harkens from Siaya, and after whom she is named.
So Magdalene’s knack for creating incredible pots might well be in the genes, since that could help explain how one of Kenya’s few O.B.E.s (Officer of the Order of the British Empire, given her by Queen Elizabeth II in 2008) makes pots which are not simply considered utilitarian containers but are recognized worldwide as refined works of art, vessels valued for their beauty, delicacy, grace and rich patina.
The artist herself claims she is influenced far more by history and antiquity than genetics. The key to her creativity, she says, is inspiration, be it in the form of a book or a walk on the beach or a trip back home to Kenya from her current base in the UK.
“My work is often thematically conceived so that I’ll create a series of ceramics based on an idea or an event or an image that excited me,” says the artist who started out as a painter in Loreto Convent Limuru and Pangani Girls.
She only discovered her fascination for pottery after completing a foundation course at the Cambridge College of Art and Design in the UK where she actually majored in print-making and photography. Then she taught ‘Museum Education’ for three years at the Commonwealth Institute, and finally, when she got a full three year grant to study for a master’s degree, she went to the Royal College of Art in London and found she was meant to be a ceramicist.
Influenced by the likes of leading British ceramicists, Bernard Leach and Michael Cardew, who she considers her soulful ‘gurus’, Magdelene has been profoundly inspired by the whole post-industrial revolution of ceramicists that caught fire in the West in the 1970s and 1980s, inspired by Leach’s work in the Far East and Cardew’s work in West Africa.
“It was while I was at the Royal College of Art that my fascination for ceramics became a full-time passion,” said Magdalene who feels very fortunate to have been in school right at a time (1979-1982) when a creative dialogue around ceramics was going global, between the West and East as well as the North and South.
Describing Cardew as the “Picasso of ceramics,” Magdalene said it was he who fueled the dialogue between the North and South by setting up training centers for indigenous ceramicist in Accra, Ghana and Abuja, Nigeria.  Around the same time, Leach was living and working in Japan, rousing Western awareness of the beautiful clay pots made by the Far East.
But even before she completed her course at the Cambridge College, Magdalene had an inkling of her affinity for ceramics. That is how in 1974, she made her way first to Nigeria and then back to Kenya to study traditional hand-built pottery techniques. She also spent some time in the U.S. traveling to Pueblo, New Mexico where she observed the making of highly polished blackware pottery.
So it’s hardly a surprise that her best-known pots are hand-built using the same coiling technique traditionally used by potters both in Kenya and Nigeria. It’s also reasonable to assume that her own highly polished unglazed pots were partially inspired by the burnished blackware vessels that she saw in New Mexico, hand-built by indigenous American Indians.
Nonetheless, Magdalene didn’t believe it was pottery that would become her first love artistically.
“Initially, I thought I would study sculpture when I reached the Royal College. I thought I’d like to work in bronze. But then I realized I could also sculpt in clay, and it felt more immediate, tactile and personal,” she said, noting that she rarely constructs her clay pots using a potter’s wheel.  Instead, she “hand-builds” all her most elegant and sought-after “sculpted vessels”, all of which are considered not functional containers but refined works of fine art.
Since completing her master’s degree in 1982, Magdalene has exhibited her clay vessels all over the world. She only had her first exhibition in Kenya in 1985 at the African Heritage Pan African Gallery during the United Nations International Women’s Conference held in Nairobi.
It took her almost 20 years to return for a second Kenyan show, this time at the British Council in 2004. But since then, she’s had exhibitions at the Nairobi Gallery in the old P.C’s House next to Nyayo House, at Nairobi National Museum and at Kenyatta University where she organized a symposium and exhibition with KU in 2008 for the International Society of Ceramic Art Education Exchange.
“The previous year, we had held the symposium for the same group at my college in Farnham, and that’s when I decided to coordinate the next year’s symposium and conference in Kenya, collaborating with Kenyatta University,” said Magdalene who organized field trips to pottery centers around Kenya for ceramicists and academics who came from China, South Korea, and Japan as well as from Turkey, UK and the US.
That symposium was a great success, she said, especially as all the international ceramicists who exhibited their pots during the week-long event donated them to the National Museum of Kenya in order for the Museum to establish a permanent ceramic collection of its own.
“Another positive thing to come out of that initial collaboration between my college and Kenyatta University is that we have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to start exchanging students and staff members between Kahawa and Farnham,” she said.
She also noted that her college plans to collaborate with local art centers in Nairobi, such as the GoDown where in future, she hopes to see Kenyan artists coming to her college for art residencies and vice versa, for British artists to work among Kenyan potters, painters and sculptors in Nairobi’s Industrial Area.
As passionate as Magdalene is about her ceramics, she doesn’t confine herself to just one artistic focus. For instance in 2011, she took part in a print-making workshop at the University of Ulster. She is also involved in various other projects, some in glass, others in digital art. In fact, not long ago in her workshop at Farnham, Magdalene created an autobiographical installation consisting of a full formal table setting, a dinner service including plates complete with computer-generated images of all her immediate family members.
An artist who is adamant about not being stereotyped, type-cast or confined in a narrow category such as female, African or even Kenyan ceramist, Magdalene doesn’t mind being called a potter, but she is sensitive to be classified.
“What’s more important is that people look at the work and judge it on its own merit, and not come with pre-conceived notions about what they will see,” said Magdalene just hours before her return to her university.
Apart from her being the most highly educated ceramicist from Kenya, the most world-traveled woman artist from East Africa and the only one whose artwork is not only in the British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum in London but also the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, the Frankfurt Museum in Germany and practically every other important art institution in the world, there is one other distinguishing feature about Magdalene.
It is something that distinguishes the world class artist from the one struggling to be recognized or struggling simply to survive. Magdalene has not one but two agents who look after her global exhibitions and interest. One is based in Brussels, in Belgium, the other in Santa Barbara, California in the US. Each one represents her to ensure her work gets the exposure it deserves. They also alert her to professional opportunities opening up in either the States or Europe or elsewhere in the world.
So while Magdalene Odundo may not be a household name in Kenya, she is like her Kisii-stone counterpart Elkana Ong’esa, a world renowned artist who is better known outside her home country than in. Hopefully, as she creates more collaborative initiatives between her college and Kenyan art institutions, we will be seeing more of Magdalene.
Certainly, she is an inspiration to Kenyan artists both women and men. She’s also appreciated by other Africans, like the Nigerian man who, after seeing her sculpted vessels first hand at one of her exhibition in the UK, told her that “her art had gotten into his blood” and made him feel like jumping for joy.
“I can’t quite explain what it is about a work of art that inspires such a delightful reaction,” she said. “But I think it is similar to a beautiful dance or even a Banyala wrestling match where perfect techniques are on display.”
For Magdalene, “Art is intuitive; it is the essence of being human.” It is also what she does best and why the world has recognized the quality and distinctive uniqueness of her finely finished clay vessels.
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