Exploring the beauty in Magdalene Odundo’s pottery

Odundo is one of the most talented contemporary ceramic artists working today


By Rachel Owens


I first encountered the work of Odundo at The British Museum’s African gallery while working there as a gallery assistant. The sensual, organic nature of her forms is what first attracted me, and as I examined her forms, I was eager to learn more about them.


Odundo was born in 1950 in Nairobi, Kenya, before she moved to Britain in 1971. She originally studied Graphic Design at Cambridge College but then switched to Ceramics at the West Surrey College of Art and Design, and later completed a master’s degree in the subject at the Royal College of Art.


Odundo’s ceramic works draw on a wide variety of traditions from Ancient Greek and Cypriot art, to Sub-Saharan Africa pottery traditions to European modernist sculpture. Odundo’s work has also always centred around the representation of the female body through the medium of clay. I am particularly interested in the uniqueness of Odundo’s forms which can be explored through the expressive, abstract nature of her ceramics, as well as the sensuality and emotional quality of her work, talent, and techniques.


Magdalene Odundo at The Hepworth Wakefield. Photograph by Charlotte Graham. Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield.

Odundo’s forms are frequently described as vessels, or containers despite their lack of functionality. In many ways they are sculptures, expanding the formal vocabulary of ceramics. This comes from the inspiration of modern masters of sculpture such as Jean Arp and Constantin Brâncusi and their treatment of form: Odundo’s vessels recall Arp’s fluid sculptures and smooth finish, and Brâncusi’s figurative forms. Odundo’s vessels function as sculptures in a similar way to these works as they are intended to be viewed as a work of three-dimensional art.


“Odundo’s vessels function as sculptures... as they are intended to be viewed as a work of three-dimensional art.“

Odundo’s vessels can also be viewed as abstract sculptures of the female body. Her hand-built, burnished, ceramic vessels appear both sensual and emotional and could be interpreted to resemble pregnant women, with their gentle swelling of the belly, the neck of her works resembling a face looking outwards, and the lips resembling a wide headpiece.


Magdalene Odundo at The Hepworth Wakefield. Photograph by Charlotte Graham. Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield.

The techniques behind Odundo’s works also fascinate me. The artist works with terracotta made from a smooth red clay mixed with a sandy yellow clay. Her forms are hand built using a coiling technique, where you roll coils of clay and build the piece by placing them on top of one another before moulding them together. The pots are fired in a gas kiln, firstly in an oxidising atmosphere turning the vessel a bright red-orange and often a second time enclosed with wood chips and shavings so that the combustion of the wood fuel causes the clay to turn black. As the process is not fully predictable, the blackened surface frequently has a high variation in colour, giving a wonderfully distinctive quality to Odundo’s vessels.


“These forms, techniques, and influences have put Magdalene Odundo at the forefront of ceramic making today.“

These techniques were learnt by Odundo when she visited Nigeria and Kenya and studied Gwari pottery at the Abuja Pottery Training Centre. After graduating from Surrey College of Art and Design, Odundo also travelled to New Mexico and saw the work of Pueblo potter Maria Martinez, observing the hand building, burnishing, and firing techniques used by Pueblo women to produce the famous San Ildefonso black-ware. These experiences gave Odundo a thorough understanding of both Sub-Saharan African and other cultures pottery techniques which became integral to her process.

Magdalene Odundo at The Hepworth Wakefield. Photograph by Charlotte Graham. Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield.

However, to view Magdalene Odundo’s vessels solely in terms of their link to Sub-Saharan African pottery, would be dismissive of the wide range of influences which she draws on. Odundo’s early travelling experiences led to a strong interest in other cultures. Odundo’s influences can be traced back to the late Bronze Age Ancient Cyprus, through the complex shaped earring figures, with their narrow-necked and wide-hipped structures, and Ancient Greek Attic-period vase painting from 500-300 BCE, which shows similarities to her restrained colour palette, fluid contours, and meticulous attention to detail.


These forms, techniques, and influences have put Magdalene Odundo at the forefront of ceramic making today. Her work recalls both the modern sculptures of Jean Arp and Constantin Brâncusi, with their fluidity and smooth finish in her treatment of form, as well as the techniques from Gwari pottery and other traditional sculpture. The sensual and emotional quality is what drew me to Odundo’s work, but I now also appreciate the beauty and originality of her work so much more.