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!

Links to Liverpool

Recently I visited the amazing ancient Cypriot collections belonging to the World Museum, Liverpool, thanks to the Curator of Classical Antiquities, Dr Chrissy Partheni. At present there is no specific gallery for ancient Cypriot objects, but visitors are greeted in the entrance hall by a display case under the banner of ‘Hidden Treasures of Liverpool’. This features a fish-shaped vessel, a oenochoe decorated in Free Field style with a fantastical bird, and a particularly beautiful Black on Red oenochoe, alongside some historic photographs from the Kouklia excavations carried out in the 1950s by J.H. Iliffe, then director of the Liverpool City Museum, and the archaeologist T.B. Mitford from the University of St Andrews.

display

Display case of Cypriot material © World Museum Liverpool

I also really liked this vitrine in the brilliant Weston Discovery Centre, where visitors can get hands-on with parts of the Museum’s collections.

jug display

Object history in the Weston Discovery Centre © World Museum Liverpool

It charts one jug’s journey from Cyprus to the museum, quietly challenging some of the prevailing narratives about colonial collecting, and hinting at the wealth of stories behind any museum collection.

Chrissy was kind enough to give me a tour of the stores, where I very much enjoyed seeing more of the wonderful and wide-ranging collections. I had a further purpose for my visit: my latest research into the destinations of Thomas Backhouse Sandwith‘s collection allowed me to join the dots and identify a few objects still in Liverpool which came from this source.

When Sandwith started sending ancient Cypriot objects to the UK in 1869, some were sold at Mrs Parkin’s Glass and China Saloon in Sheffield. I’ve also come across evidence that they were sold in Liverpool ‘at the shop of Mr Stonier, glass and earthenware dealer’, in the form of a newspaper article from the Liverpool Daily Post of 13 August 1870. This states that the objects were placed on sale by Henry Sandwith, T.B. Sandwith’s brother and ‘clergyman of the Church of England’, but the article bears every sign of having been written by John Holmes, who played a major role in disseminating Sandwith’s collection – not least the rather awkwardly shoehorned-in reference to Romans 9.21 (‘Hath not the potter power over the clay’). The article concludes:

“The Rev. Dr. Hume, Mr. J. A. Picton, and other antiquaries of the town… have made a selection of some of the rarest and most illustrative of the types, in the hope that the committee of the public museum will purchase them’.

stonier liverpool

Liverpool Daily Post, 13 August 1870

This hope seems to have been fulfilled, as the 1870 Annual Report of the Free Public Library, Museum and Schools of the Borough of Liverpool records the purchase of ‘Ten specimens of Graeco-Phoenician Pottery and Glass found at Cyprus’. These turn out to have been accessioned at the Liverpool Museum under the name of Stonier, which makes sense as he was the immediate vendor, and this explains how the Sandwith connection was obscured.

We were able to see seven of these objects; a beautiful Bichrome amphora, oenochoe, and barrel jug; three pieces of glass, including a ‘candlestick’ vessel of the type which confused John Holmes; and a Red Polished spouted bowl. It’s easy to see why the ‘antiquaries’ selected these for the Museum, and they may give some idea of the rest of Sandwith’s collection put up for sale in Liverpool. I would guess that the Red Polished bowl falls into the category of ‘rarest’, and the others into ‘most illustrative’, but it’s difficult to be sure.

 

amphora

label

Bichrome amphora with early display label © World Museum Liverpool

The Rev. Dr. Hume mentioned in the article is probably Abraham Hume (1814–1884) (on the right in the portrait below), joint founder of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire alongside Joseph Mayer, whose extensive collections formed the basis of the Liverpool Museum, and Henry C. Pidgeon. He was also secretary to the British Association at Liverpool in 1870, and Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.

bm mayer

Portrait of the three founders of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire      © The British Museum (1943,0410.2094)

J.A. Picton was an architect and antiquarian who was instrumental in bringing a free public library to Liverpool. They were typical of the educated men, with a broad interest in the ancient past, who were in the first wave of encountering the ancient Cypriot objects that Sandwith caused to be imported. They certainly chose well on behalf of the Liverpool Museum.

Following up another piece of unfinished business, we also tried to track down the ‘large £5 vase’ purchased from Sandwith’s collection by G. Sinclair Robertson. The itinerary of this vase has become obscured over time, not least due to the damage incurred by the Liverpool Museum during WWII. While it’s not possible to be certain, this large amphora may perhaps be the one in question; it’s certainly similar in size to the large amphora that William Aldam purchased, also for £5, from Sandwith’s collection.

robertson amphora

White Painted amphora, © World Museum Liverpool

The Liverpool ancient Cypriot collection has a fascinating set of histories behind it, not least relating to the excavations at Kouklia. It was great to be able to link a small part of the collection to Sandwith’s activities in the 1860s-1870s, and find further evidence of how far his collection has travelled.