The contemporary ceramic vessels of Kenyan-born artist Magdalene Odundo embody the diverse formal and functional sources that have inspired the artist. Initially trained as a graphic artist, Odundo moved in 1971 to London and enrolled as a student at the Royal College of Art. An interest in the possibilities of clay as a medium led her to return to Africa to study various pottery-making techniques in Nigeria and Kenya. There, she observed women potters handbuilding and firing vessels using techniques passed down for generations. Odundo also examined the pottery traditions of San Ildefonso Pueblo in New Mexico, where women produce highly polished blackware ceramics.
While absorbing these experiences, Odundo has developed her own technique and style. Like traditional potters, she hand-builds her vessel, shaping the clay without the aid of a potter’s wheel. When the clay has dried, she burnishes the vessel, covers it with slip, and burnishes it again. Initial firing in a gas kiln results in an orange-red color. Vessels are often fired again, this time using wood fuel in an oxygen-reduced atmosphere, imparting a surface that is partially or completely blackened.
Odundo’s vessels may be described as variations on a theme, in which subtle modifications of form have great aesthetic impact. Certain shapes—a swelling bowl, nipple-like protrusions—are suggestive of the female body. This long-necked vessel has softly bulging contours that express a sense of fullness. Dramatic striations of color are the unexpected result of the unpredictable nature of Odundo’s firing technique.
© 2006 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (by permission)