Magdalene Odundo: The Journey of Things, at The Hepworth Wakefield

Last week I was lucky enough to attend the private view of The Hepworth Wakefield’s new exhibition, Magdalene Odundo: The Journey of Things. I’ve previously seen some of Odundo’s ceramics displayed alongside ancient Cypriot objects at Nottingham Castle Museum, so when I saw this major exhibition planned for Wakefield, I had to visit. It charts Odundo’s development and influences as an artist, and brings together a wide selection of her work with objects from other artists and cultures. These include ancient Cypriot ceramics, including some on loan from the World Museum, Liverpool, and it was great to see the exhibition with Chrissy Partheni, Curator of Classical Antiquities at the Museum.

It was wonderful to see the interplay between Odundo’s ceramic forms and those of the other objects, including Cycladic figurines, canopic jars, and a Degas bronze dancer, though unsurprisingly it was the Cypriot resemblances that attracted me most. Some specific features of ancient Cypriot ceramics, such as string loops and high cutaway spouts, are echoed in Odundo’s work, but beyond that, there’s a witty, playful, exuberant quality to Odundo’s ceramics which really speaks to the ancient Cypriot forms; a continuity of attitude and expression across the centuries. I am endlessly interested in the journeys of things, as this blog demonstrates, and one of the ways in which ancient Cypriot objects travel forward into the future is through resemblances in contemporary art, an echo here and an influence there. As Odundo says, ‘Objects hold the knowledge of our history.’

The exhibition is stunningly designed by architect Farshid Moussavi, with low, stepped plinths giving broad lines of sight and a sense of unmediated access to the objects, minimising borders and boundaries and allowing the objects to speak to each other across the spaces. They include many loans from the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich, an exhibition partner. The interpretation panels are unobtrusive and give an overview of key stages in Odundo’s life and career, and her techniques and influences. I liked seeing the Cypriot pieces labelled as ‘Unknown maker’, which serves as a reminder of the craftsperson behind the object.

There is no substitute for seeing the exhibition for yourself, but these are some of the highlights from my perspective:

This Middle Cypriot dipper belonging to Barbara Hepworth has previously been on display at the Hepworth Wakefield, as part of her personal collection of objects; it’s easy to see the attraction of its delicate form and high, looping handle, with simple yet striking red painted decoration. Here it’s joined by a vessel made by Odundo, a new take on the kylix form which looks so different in transparent glass – I love the flyaway ends to the handles –  and also a Kerma culture bowl from the Fitzwilliam Museum, whose layers of colour are said to represent sediment. This case says all sorts of things about materials, just through the juxtaposition of the objects.

Kylix

Drinking vessel, dipper, and bowl © The Hepworth, Wakefield

This type of symmetrical jar is perhaps one of the most striking of Odundo’s forms, and is used on the exhibition poster and branding; the red and black clay, and highly burnished finish, of these and other pieces irresistibly suggest ancient Greek Black- and Red-Figure vases.

Three vessels

Dark Symmetrical Jar and two further vessels © The Hepworth, Wakefield

I particularly liked this conjunction of an Odundo vessel, a Cypriot juglet and a Mangbetu culture jar from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The explicitly human form of the jar is made abstract in Odundo’s piece, and is reminiscent of the way that a resemblance to a bird, animal, or mythical beast is never far away from ancient Cypriot ceramics. The different levels of lustre, and punctured decoration, sends the eye from one object to the next; in combination, they are more than the sum of their parts. There’s a real sense of movement, as though the objects have been caught in momentary stasis.

Three jars

Mangbetu culture jar, Odundo vessel, Cypriot juglet © The Hepworth, Wakefield

This Black Polished jar, one of the loans from World Museum, Liverpool, could stand next to almost any of Odundo’s work; it’s in remarkably good condition and clearly demonstrates how visually appealing these objects must have been in their original context of use, with their lustrous finish and contrasting incised decoration.

Black Polished jar

Black Polished jar from World Museum, Liverpool © The Hepworth, Wakefield

The exhibition stays at the Hepworth until 2 June, then moves to the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts from August to December. I don’t think one visit will be enough for me!

Amathus in Nottingham

As well as Leeds (if my theory is correct – see previous post), the British Museum sent objects from its excavations at Amathus to a number of other museums, public schools and colleges in 1895. According to a minute by A.S. Murray, these were:

Over the last few months I’ve been trying to track down these Amathus donations, with help from the organisations’ curators, who have been very generous in taking the time and trouble to further my research. I’d love to visit more of the collections in person (in particular, Dublin and Manchester are high on my list), but I was lucky enough to have a day trip to Nottingham last month to see the Amathus collection, kindly hosted by Rebecca Arnott, Collections and Access Officer.

First I made a visit to the Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery, impressively situated overlooking the city, and set in beautiful gardens – well worth climbing all the steps!

Nottingham Castle Museum

Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery

I really enjoyed the Ancient Greek gallery, which was both fun and educational and got the maximum value from the Ancient Greek objects on display. But my favourite was the  ‘Every Object Tells a Story’ gallery, an inspiring ‘celebration of decorative art objects’ examining the stories behind them. This has much in common with my approach to the ancient Cypriot collections in Leeds. I loved the juxtaposition between a beautiful vase made by potter Magdelene Odundo, and three ancient Cypriot juglets and a figurine, which encourages new ways of looking at both the modern and the ancient objects, given more resonance by being displayed together.

Display of ancient and modern ceramics © Nottingham Castle Museum

Display of ancient and modern ceramics
© Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery

But the main purpose of my visit was to go ‘behind the scenes’ and look at the objects from Amathus, which are not currently on display. My aim was to see if there was any correspondence between these and the objects in the Leeds University collection, which would tend to support the theory that they were originally from the same source.

There certainly were a few parallels. For example, both collections include small juglets of Black on Red ware, with neck-ridge and decorated with black bands on glossy red slip.

NCM 1895-23 Black on Red juglet © Nottingham Castle Museum

NCM 1895-23
Black on Red juglet
© Nottingham City Museums and Galleries

UNIV.1913.0011 Black on Red Juglet © University of Leeds

UNIV.1913.0011
Black on Red Juglet
© University of Leeds

They also both have pilgrim flasks, of similar shapes and sizes:

NCM 1895-36 Pilgrim flask © Nottingham Castle Museum

NCM 1895-36
Pilgrim flask
© Nottingham City Museums and Galleries

UNIV.1913.0001 Pilgrim flask © University of Leeds

UNIV.1913.0001
Pilgrim flask
© University of Leeds

This isn’t particularly surprising; both of these are very common types of objects, and probably feature in many collections of ancient Cypriot artefacts. One object I found more intriguing was this fairly crude clay bottle:

NCM 1895-39 Bottle of red clay © Nottingham Castle Museum

NCM 1895-39
Cylindrical bottle
© Nottingham City Museums and Galleries

UNIV.1913.0016 Bottle of red clay © University of Leeds

UNIV.1913.0016
Cylindrical bottle
© University of Leeds

As the photos show, it’s not dissimilar to a bottle/jar in the Leeds collection, with a narrow foot, small, flat handles, and deeply incised scores at the neck. The Nottingham example is currently in several pieces; the neck (not shown) has roughly the same dimensions, and the same slight flare, as the Leeds bottle’s neck. I haven’t yet managed to identify the Leeds bottle; it’s not a typically Cypriot shape, and may well be an import. The presence of similar ceramics, slightly outside the mainstream, in the two collections may perhaps indicate that they come from the same source; or it could equally well be coincidence!

I really enjoyed my time in Nottingham and am looking forward to going back again – not least to further explore the Museum and Art Gallery, and quite possibly the café. My thanks to Rebecca for arranging my visit, and to all the other curators who have helped with this project.