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Curator’s Choice: Magdalene Odundo, Untitled, 2004

by Marla C. Berns

The Fowler Museum began its engagement with the ceramic vessels by Dame Magdalene Anyango Namakhiva Odundo when it served as a venue for the 1995 traveling exhibition, Ceramic Gestures: New Vessels by Magdalene Odundo, organized by the University Art Museum at UC Santa Barbara, now known as the Art, Design & Architecture Museum (AD&A Museum). I curated that exhibition during my tenure as director of the UCSB museum, having extensively interviewed the artist at her studio in England. The exhibition, Odundo’s first solo museum show in the U.S., traveled to six other venues from 1995 to 1997, including the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

Installation view, Ceramic Gestures: New Vessels by Magdalene Odundo, 1995, Fowler Museum at UCLA

The vessel illustrated above is one of two in the Fowler’s collection and was purchased in 2005 for the new long-term exhibition of the museum’s permanent collections, Intersections: World Arts, Local Lives, which opened in 2006. It was featured in the section called “Tradition and Innovation” because of the ways Odundo’s ceramic vessels have a deep connection to pottery made in Africa yet are indebted to her own innovative firing process developed while living outside the continent: “My aim is to show that historical and contemporary work can be viewed as a continuum; that historical work can and does inform the contemporary, while the contemporary re-interprets and moves on.”

Odundo uses millennia-old hand-coiling techniques she learned from rural women potters in Nigeria. While the careful working of clay is vital to her vessels’ graceful shapes and harmonious balance, it is through the burnishing and firing that they are ultimately formed. Fired first in an oxidizing environment, where they turn a bright orange, some vessels are fired a second time in a reducing atmosphere to turn them a rich charcoal-black. As is evident in the Fowler’s example illustrated here, the surface variations can be dazzling, resulting from accidents in the firing process.

The ceramic vessel is described in almost every culture in a language that draws on the human body: pots have lips, mouths, necks, shoulders, waists, bodies, feet, and arms. In this example, subtle details, such as a row of bumps, are suggestive of vertebrae. Odundo openly describes the anthropomorphic references in her work, especially the clear formal correlates to women’s bodies. Yet, she also aims for more than making her pots “look” like women by borrowing essential female aspects of their natural or adorned appearance. Odundo “sees” vessels in the ways women look or move, using such observations as the basis for specific ceramic forms.

Marla C. Berns is the Shirley & Ralph Shapiro Director of the Fowler Museum at UCLA

Interview with Magdelene Odundo by Marla C. Berns, 1995.
Re-edited and produced by Agnes Stauber, 2006.

About the artist
Born in 1950 in Nairobi, Odundo worked in graphic design at a Kenyan advertising agency before moving to England, where she enrolled at Cambridge School of Art. She continued her studies at University for the Creative Arts (UCA) and Royal College of Arts, encountering mentors in the British pottery world and in residencies at Abuja Pottery Centre in Nigeria.

Recent exhibitions include:
Constantin Brâncuși & Magdalene Odundo (2020), Albion Barn, UK

Magdalene Odundo: The Journey of Things (2019), produced in collaboration by The Sainsbury Centre and The Hepworth Wakefield, both in the UK.

Universal and Sublime: The Vessels of Magdalene Odundo (2017), High Museum of Art, Atlanta

Odundo taught at UCA from 1997–2014 and was named Chancellor in 2018. She received an OBE in 2008 for her contributions to the arts and was made a Dame in 2020.

Click here to see Odundo’s later work in this 2019 video of her exhibition at the Hepworth Wakefield Museum in England.

Ceramic Gestures: New Vessels by Magdalene Odundo
Text by Marla Berns
Published 1995 by University of California Santa Barbara
34 pages
ISBN: 0942006283
Out of print, sometimes available through used booksellers

Image at top:
Magdalene Odundo (b. 1950, Nairobi, Kenya; lives and works in England)
Untitled, 2004
Ceramic, H: 48.0 cm, Diam: 30.0 cm
Fowler Museum at UCLA, X2005.29.1; Museum purchase

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