One of the greatest contemporary ceramicists to emerge from London’s Royal College of Art since Elizabeth Fritsch is Kenyan-born Magdalene Namakhiya Anyango Odundo. The strange thing is, though she is well-known abroad, she is only now being acknowledged in the country of her birth.
Odundo lives, breathes and talks art. Currently, she is a professor of ceramics at the University of Creative Arts in Farnham, England.
Odundo’s handmade ceramic pieces can be found in museums and public and private collections in Europe, North America and Africa. Phillips de Pury recently auctioned one of her earlier works for £30,000—a tidy sum for a contemporary ceramic piece.
“Pottery is a human art that has significance as material culture in all societies. It plays an important role in all aspects of the study of human sciences. Ceramics has been valued for its artistic as well as its utilitarian use. There is hardly any society that does not use or handle pottery in some form. It is just fantastic!” says Odundo as she explains the significance of her work.
Odundo was born in Nairobi and grew up in Mombasa. After high school, she worked as an apprentice with the SH Benson advertising agency (later acquired by Ogilvy & Mather). In the early 1970s Odundo left for England, where she continued her studies in commercial art. But she soon grew disenchanted working on commercial projects.
“I began looking for other creative avenues and applying to art colleges. In 1973, I accepted a place at West Surrey College of Art and Design in Farnham, for me one of the best liberal arts colleges in the UK. I spent the next three years in the three-dimensional design department focusing on ceramics, printmaking and photography.” Odundo graduated in 1976 with a first-class honors degree.
During her undergraduate studies, Odundo became interested in the anthropological relationship between ceramics and material culture. She wanted to compare African with other world cultures and returned to Kenya to research the relationship between ceramics and rites of passage among the Abaluhya people living around Lake Nyanza (Lake Victoria).
But Odundo’s approach to her ceramics goes beyond field studies. She believes experience is gained through theory and practice. “That is why libraries and museums have played such an important part in my research.”
As a student at Farnham, Odundo took every opportunity to visit collections like the British Museum. Through one of her influential lecturers, John Donne, she discovered the Petrie Museum of Egyptology, University College London, which remains one of her favorites.
“I have a passion for knowledge. If you have a passion for something, you are inclined to study it in depth. Knowledge is a vehicle that enables me to understand myself, my profession and allows me to continue to be creative.”
Ceramics is philosophical and spiritual and a part of everyday life. For her, art is life and life is art.
“Being an artist requires discipline—it’s hard work!” Odundo says. “You need to immerse yourself in the making while continuing to reflect on ideas. I spend much time thinking about what I am going to make.”
Odundo begins with a concept. Then she draws the shapes she imagines. “The thinking and drawing is where you get all the blocks and interruptions. But once the concepts have been formalized and sieved, I can begin handling the clay.” All of Odundo’s pieces have spent a lot of time in her hands. She takes the clay through a ritual of kneading, mixing and kneading again until it becomes elastic. “I don’t use the wheel. I use a method that combines sculpting, coiling, curving and forming.”
Her method evolves from traditional ways of potting practised in non-industrialized societies like Kenya and other African countries, as well as Asia and South America. “Europeans and American anthropologists have referred to these techniques as being primitive, but these technologies have evolved over more than 2,000 years of hand-building. These methods are highly skilful and technical, and knowledge and experience are required for their mastery. I love working with my hands because of the personal contact with the material. At this point, the analytical process becomes secondary; the making becomes less visceral and more tactile.”
Odundo works on several pieces simultaneously. A single piece can take six to eight weeks to complete and that’s not counting the firing process. Generally her exhibitions, which take 18 to 24 months to prepare, are made up of between 10 and 12 ceramic pieces. “The hardest part is reaching perfection—achieving what you had envisioned.”
And then, the demands of teaching make it difficult to be prolific. In the first 15 years of her career, Odundo held an exhibition annually. Now it’s every two years. Being a renowned artist comes with obligations to serve on advisory boards, work on collaborative projects and lecture. These commitments impact on an artist’s time.
In the last two years, Odundo has been working in other media. She recently participated in a printmaking workshop in Belfast. Metamorphosis and Transformation, an installation in glass, is currently on show at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington—it’s the culmination of an artist-in-residency there last year.
Odundo is reluctant to attach prices to her pieces. “I feel the value of a work is intrinsic and perhaps better assessed in terms of its longevity and repute.”
I asked Odundo if there were any pieces which were given special attention or created specifically for commissions. She says that all her work demands equal attention, but acknowledges that at an exhibition there will always be some pieces that are more distinctive than others. These pieces will be immediately snapped up by museums or big collectors. “My favorite pieces include the vessel loaned to the Murumbi Permanent Collection here at the National Archives in Nairobi. To be honest, all the pieces that are in both public and private collections are special to me. They are all my favorites. They are all my creation. They are my children.”
Most artists will tell you they are possessive of their creations. At the same time, artists create work that matures with time and they are able to let go of the pieces into the possession of others for equal appreciation. “My work is about me, but it is also hopefully made to enhance the material culture of our society. A successful piece of work for me is one that moves an individual in a personal manner.”
Odundo’s vessels are not utilitarian—they are not fired to vitrifying temperatures, so they’re porous to retain the organic quality of the clay.
When Odundo had her first exhibition at the African Heritage House, she remembers her relatives being astonished at the refinement of her work. To her, this was the greatest accolade she could have hoped for. “I realized that my choice of working in clay had been justified and that clay had this wonderful, universal language with no barriers to appreciation or understanding.”
What do Odundo’s pieces represent? “Spirit, movement, ideas—I capture negative and positive spaces, solids, voids. I try to express the human spirit in my work; the qualities of being; and I try to reflect some of the rituals and rites of passage which concern us all. I attempt to move, to dance and to arrest moments of stillness crucial to my existence.”
As a master ceramicist, Odundo is glad to be part of making history through art. I asked her how she sees the future of pottery in Africa. “There is a wonderful tradition of ceramics in Africa that will continue to inspire generations of young ceramicists and potters. Introducing subjects like the science and art of ceramics into our education curriculum is the greatest challenge we face in this generation.”