Clay is universal and timeless. Clay pots, or vessels, represent a crossroads of function, form, design and beauty.
Beyond vessels, clay was the medium of choice in Africa and Asia, dating back thousands of years, and was also used in making figurines.
A good example is the Terracotta Army of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China and the clay figurines discovered in Ghana and South Africa.
The masters who created vessels and figurines in both Asia and Africa continue to intrigue “modern” artist.
And although their ancient works is now largely exhibited in museums and private collections around the word, there are some contemporary works of clay art in Africa and elsewhere that are charged with the power and the emotional vitality of the work of the early masters.
Among these is the work of Professor Magdalene Ayango N. Odundo, a Kenya-born ceramicist, currently the Chancellor of the University for Creative Arts in the UK, taking over from famous UK artist and fashion designer, Dame Zandra Rhodes.
Odundo’s clay vessels blend multiple functional references that speak evocatively of past ceramic traditions yet appear as modern artistic pieces.
Born in Nairobi in 1950, Odundo did not pursue pottery as a career but was interested in art as a child and won a number of poster-making contests as a student, and was naturally inclined towards artistic projects and therefore her creative side.
After high school, she got a job as an assistant designer in a neon-sign making company in commercial advertising.
She later enrolled for evening classes at the then Kenya Polytechnic where she studied design, layout and graphics.
Her Godmother, Isabel Beverly, recognised her flair and skills in design work and sought sponsorship for here to pursue further studies at the Cambridge College of Art in the United Kingdom.
She arrived in London in l971 and studied print making and metal work, which she enjoyed tremendously.
The college also offered classes in pottery, taught by Zoe Ellison, a potter born in Zimbabwe.
Odundo was so good at pottery that she took the advice of Ellison to apply to West Surrey College of Art and Design at Farnham (later the Surrey Institute of Art and Design University College) to take an advanced course there.
It was at Surrey College that her career as a ceramicist took shape after Henry Hammond, the head of ceramics at Surrey College, offered her a position as a member of faculty.
Odundo did not accept the position immediately. She travelled back home and spent time in Western Kenya to learn more about pottery traditions, and later she took up the offer in l973.
It was at Surrey that Odundo studied etching too and also attended classes ranging from Oriental Classical architecture to European 20th century art and African art, which she found hugely satisfying.
Later, encouraged by one of the world’s leading potters, Michael Cardew, who introduced her to Nigerian pottery, Odundo took a trip to Nigeria in the summer of 1974 where she worked with potters in Abuja, at a thriving stoneware centre producing pottery in a wooden kiln, based on the Nigerian Gwari pottery traditions. This was the defining moment in a career that was to span more than four decades.
Today, Odundo is acclaimed as one of the world’s leading ceramicists, and is probably Kenya’s most famous living artist.
Although her origins are in Western Kenya, renowned for its pottery traditions, it was her exposure to pottery traditions in Nigeria and many other parts of the world where she studied the ways women produced handmade pots and traditional kiln firing dating back thousands of years, that moulded her style.
She taught ceramics at the University for Creative Arts near London for several years before becoming Professor Emeritus of Ceramics.
She has been an artist/lecturer in residence in a number of colleges around the world.
She has had numerous exhibitions worldwide. Her first exhibition in Africa was at the African Heritage Gallery during the United Nations Decade of Women Conference in Nairobi in l985. Her vessels are sought after by collectors, museums and galleries around the world.
In 2011, She was awarded the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth for her service to the arts, the only Kenyan to be bestowed this honour.
In 2012, she was awarded the African Heritage Life Time Achievement Award in the Arts.
Later, she chose to turn her potter’s touch to glass objects, and her works of glass in the UK and US have drawn wide acclaim from art enthusiasts.
One of Odundo’s clay vessels is on display at the Nairobi Gallery.