Magdalene Anyango N. Odundo, Symmetrical Reduced Black Narrow-Necked Tall Piece

Magdalene Anyango N. Odundo, Symmetrical Reduced Black Narrow-Necked Tall Piece, 1990, terracotta, 40.6 x 25.4 x 25.4 cm (Brooklyn Museum)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re in the Brooklyn Museum, looking at a ceramic pot by a Kenyan-born artist that works and lives in England.

Dr. Peri Klemm: [0:13] This work by Magdalene Odundo is a black chrome ceramic piece that is just exquisite.

Dr. Zucker: [0:20] When I first looked at it, I assumed that it was thrown on a wheel because it is so precise. But in fact, it’s made with coil, that is, a snaking of clay that is then smoothed to create the broad surfaces of the pot.

Dr. Klemm: [0:33] It’s a very wonderful modern vessel that focuses both on form and color.

Dr. Zucker: [0:40] The color is really exquisite. First of all, the surface is mottled. It’s got a slight iridescence to it. The color is almost indescribable. It’s a very warm, almost coppery silver.

Dr. Klemm: [0:51] When the artist was finishing her degree in England, she began getting interested in pottery and went back to Nigeria and to Kenya to look at the way in which African women make their pots. Again, it’s that same coiling technique that she was interested in.

[1:07] She also went to San Ildefonso Pueblo in the Southwest to look at the way in which Pueblo potters fashioned their black-on-black ware.

Dr. Zucker: [1:15] We have this person who lives very much in the modern world, who’s looking not only at her own heritage, that is, the traditions of Africa, but also looking at the American Southwest, at Native American traditions.

Dr. Klemm: [1:26] Her work is really transnational on many levels. She herself was a migrant with her family. She’s looking back to her African roots. She’s associating herself with generations of Sub-Saharan African women who make vessels for everyday use.

[1:43] But she’s also a contemporary artist who has created a work of sculpture that’s really no longer utilitarian but rather all about the form itself.

Dr. Zucker: [1:51] We have this broad bowl, this form at the bottom, this tall neck, these two wonderful circles that ride off the neck at the base. And then these points that stand out from the neck, that almost look like spines or of scarification.

Dr. Klemm: [2:04] Her work has often been compared to the body because the way in which we describe pottery, right — it has a lip, a neck, a belly. In fact, many of these little embellishments, little rounded forms, or elongated forms, like the six we see on the neck, are described as things that are done to the body. Keloid scars, raised scars that are given to a woman at puberty to add to her aesthetic appeal.

Dr. Zucker: [2:30] But here, abstracted from the body as pure form.

Dr. Klemm: [2:33] We talk about the body as dynamic, as changing through time. In this case, Odundo is also referencing the properties of clay, which are soft and malleable when first extracted from the earth and through time and process and heat become water-resistant and firm and static.

Dr. Zucker: [2:55] She’s maintaining that organic quality subtly. Look, for instance, at the six points at the neck. The top two point down ever so slightly, as if they are responding to gravity or as if they are in a sense responding to the turn of the neck.

Dr. Klemm: [3:10] In addition, the rings at the midsection also seem to be slightly different in size. So while at first glance it appears wheel-made and perfect, we begin to see, as we look closely, that in fact there is a human and a handmade quality to these vessels.

Dr. Zucker: [3:31] Which is almost impossible to my eye. Look at the precision of the lip itself. There is such a delicacy and perfection there. It seems as if it was made out of the finest Chinese porcelain. Then, if you look very closely, it’s not a single but a double lip.

Dr. Klemm: [3:46] This artist is interested in creating a one-of-a-kind sculpture that is unique and almost perfect.

Dr. Zucker: [3:54] What a great example of the modern condition, in the way in which we can look back to not only our own traditions but other traditions that we find valuable.

[4:01] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Peri Klemm and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Magdalene Anyango N. Odundo, Symmetrical Reduced Black Narrow-Necked Tall Piece," in Smarthistory, July 1, 2021, accessed July 15, 2024,