One thing in particular struck me on a return visit to the Magdalene Odundo exhibition at the Hepworth Wakefield – the wonderful cloudy effects of mottled orange and black produced by her firing techniques.
The introduction to the exhibition by the Hepworth’s Chief Curator, Andrew Bonacina, gives some insight into this:
‘Odundo coats her vessels in slip and burnishes the surface using stones and polishing tools. She fires them in a gas kiln, controlling the amount of oxygen in order to determine whether they remain bright orange (oxidising) or turn iridescent black (reduction firing). Multiple firings create the thrilling interplay of the two colours that bloom to resemble cloud formations or interlocking land masses.’
I was reminded of an article by David Frankel and Jenny Webb on the Bronze Age Red Polished terracotta productions of Psematismenos in south-eastern Cyprus. Some of these vessels have a similar abstract, irregular interplay of black and orange, lending unpredictability and variation to fairly standardised shapes, unlike the more formal bands of red and black produced later by carefully managed differential firing of pottery elsewhere on the island.
The pots were prepared for firing in much the same way as Odundo’s: slipped with iron-rich clay, then burnished. Frankel and Webb suggest that the mottling might have been produced during firing by bringing the vessels into direct contact with firewood or embers, or perhaps covering part of them to restrict the flow of oxygen. It could even have been created by holding a burning stick against the vessel after firing, as it was taken out of the kiln or bonfire.
As Frankel and Webb emphasise, potters were capable of controlling their firings and producing uniform and even colours, so this cloudy effect must have been deliberately sought. Even so, its unpredictability suggests that it was the result of chance as well as intention. This element of chance is part of Odundo’s joy in the process of making ceramics; as she says,
‘ The reliance on the fire to give the work that last movement in its dance, to give it that last touch of spirit, to transform it into something completely new is a process that all ceramicists get excited about. When the firing works, it can be magical. All of a sudden, each vessel, bowl or urn defines itself with its own identity.’
This magical sense of chance and surprise, the anticipation of seeing how the firing has turned out, must have been shared by Bronze Age potters on Cyprus thousands of years ago; a further link in the connections Odundo traces between diverse peoples and their making cultures.
Bonacina, A. 2019. Magdalene Odundo: The Journey of Things
Frankel, D. and Webb, J. 2009. ‘Colours and Clouds of Bronze Age Cyprus’ CeramicsTECHNICAL No. 29 pp. 3-7