Odundo addendum

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.

Magdalene Odundo, ‘Pair of untitled pots’, 2013.

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.’

Magdalene Odundo, ‘Mixed-Colour Symmetrical with Double Rim’, 1987.

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.’

Magdalene Odundo, ‘Untitled’, 1990.

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

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.


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!