Britain has a booming history of ceramics.
In particular, across two gallery spaces on its first floor, the York Art Gallery celebrates the British studio ceramics movement, which began in the early 20th century and continues to influence ceramicists today.
A less well-documented area of British ceramics history, and ceramics history in general, is, however, the contribution made by Black women ceramicists. That’s where York Gallery’s new Body Vessel Clay exhibition steps in.
Conceived and curated by Dr Jareh Das, the exhibition opens with a collection of Nigerian potter Ladi Kwali’s work. Exhibition information narrates the story of how Ladi Kwali was born in the village of Kwali, where, at a young age, she learnt pottery from her aunt using traditional hand-building methods of coiling and pinching. After seeing her work displayed in the palace of the Emir (king) of Abuja, British studio potter Michael Cardew invited Ladi Kwali to join his recently established Pottery Training Centre Abuja as the first female trainee. It was here that Ladi Kwali learnt Western throwing, glazing and the use of ‘slips’.
While the exhibition repeatedly praises Ladi Kwali’s development of a new ‘hybrid’ ceramic form, in which hand-built Gwari traditions are fused with European studio pottery techniques, it also – perhaps for the first time – problematises Michael Cardew’s project. Alongside archival documents about the tours Michael Cardew arranged to historically Black American colleges and universities, in which Ladi Kwali would demonstrate how to hand-build pots, an inscription points out that Cardew’s intention for these demonstrations to ‘help connect African-American students to their roots’ might today ‘be viewed as problematic’. This is because Cardew might be seen as ‘a white male authority figure assuming the position of validating an indigenous Nigerian women’s craft.’
Indeed, this tension between pottery as a tradition rooted in a lineage of Black women versus being a craft taught by European institutions becomes the central theme of the exhibition. The influence of European institutions can, for example, be seen in Halima Audu’s Lidded Bottle, which features Cardew’s innovation of the screw-top lid. In contrast, Magdalene Odundo’s iconic asymmetrical, vase-like sculptural forms centre Gwari’s hand-building techniques and favour hand-burnishing and slip clay overglazing.
It is in the work presented by the final ceramicists in the exhibition – Bisila Noha, Phoebe Collings-James, Shawanda Corbett, Chinasa Vivian Ezugha, Jade Montserrat and Julia Phillips – that the tension between Black female ceramic traditions and European traditions really begins to be reconciled. Noha’s work is the perfect symbol for this reconciliation – through a combination of hand-building, throwing and sculpting, she creates distinctive two-legged vessels that reflect ‘combining to birth something new.’
The ’something new’ that is birthed through the work of Collings-James, Corbett, Vivian Ezugha, Montserrat and Phillips is postcolonialism in action: the ceramicists acknowledge the colonial past of pottery, reclaim the erased history of Black women’s relationship with pottery, and imagine alternative futures for ceramics in which Black women are centred. In this future, the lines between the Black female body and ceramics blur – whether it be Phillips, Montserrat and Vivian Ezugha’s intimate connection with clay in their performance art, Collings-James’ ceramic torsos, or Corbett’s vessels serving as stand-ins for people.
Body Vessel Clay is revolutionary in its centring on a lineage of Black female ceramicists within the story of British ceramics. On a purely aesthetic level, the pottery contained in the exhibition is a visual feast – I particularly enjoyed the distinctive hand-burnishing on Odundo’s sculptures and the marbling on those of Noha. The real triumph of the exhibition is, however, the way in which Dr Jareh Das’ curation entirely unites the “body”, “vessel” and “clay” of the exhibition’s title – it is clear that clay should not be overlooked as a particularly prescient and versatile medium through which to explore Black womanhood past, present and future.
The Body Vessel Clay: Black Women, Ceramics & Contemporary Art exhibition will be at York Art Gallery until Sunday 18th September 2022. You can attend drop-in non-artist-led workshops in conversation with the exhibition between 11am-4pm on Saturday 20th and Saturday 27th August. Find out more here.