Magdalene Odundo on commanding her craft

By TF Chan

“Odundo has infused her command of her craft with a sophisticated understanding of the constantly changing politics of cultural identity.”

“I have trodden long paths and travelled a long way, and now somebody’s saying, ‘we recognise that travel’,” says Magdalene Odundo of being awarded this year’s Lifetime Achievement Medal. She is looking back on a five-decade career, which contributed to the flourishing of British studio ceramics in the 1980s and eventually surpassed the genre, making her perhaps the most influential ceramic artist of our time. Odundo likes to describe herself as a product of travel. Born in Nairobi and raised between Kenya and India, she moved to the UK in the 1970s – a “decade of hope” characterised by liberation movements across Africa, anti-apartheid protests and the rise of Black writers such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka.

“You never passed somebody from Africa, from Asia, without nodding your head and acknowledging each other,” she recalls. That sense of solidarity went hand-in-hand with her journeys to Nigeria, the US, China and more, where she encountered artists such as Ladi Kwali and Maria Martinez, and explored vernacular craft techniques.

“Wherever I went, I was always curious to discover why it was that human beings make and surround ourselves with objects that are not utilitarian, but give pleasure, or have spiritual significance, or tell the stories of those who made them,” she explains. “And I was satisfied to find that human beings are the same everywhere.”

Odundo’s global perspective is evident in her vessels, which are made from a specific mix of English clays and hand-built in the tradition of the Gbari potters of Nigeria. Their seductive patinas draw inspiration from the beakers of the ancient Nubian Kerma civilisation, while their sharp rims nod to the traditional knife jewellery made by the Turkana people of Kenya. The vessels’ voluptuous forms, often with arched necks and protruding nodules, encompass a further range of artistic references, which Odundo articulated in the 2019 exhibition ‘The Journey of Things’, shown at the Hepworth Wakefield and the Sainsbury Centre in Norfolk.

Alongside her own work, she presented a curation of historic and contemporary objects, ranging from ancient Greek amphorae to an Elizabethan dress and a tapestry by El Anatsui.

The inclusive exhibition setup reflected Odundo’s generosity in acknowledging her references – an approach that has inspired another leading ceramic artist, Theaster Gates, who credits Odundo with having “helped shape who I am as a contemporary maker”. It also situated her work in a global context, honouring her African background while transcending attempts at stereotyping.

“What makes Odundo so exceptional,” says Alice Rawsthorn, author of Design as an Attitude and co- founder of Design Emergency, “is that she has infused her command of her craft with a sophisticated understanding of the constantly changing politics of cultural identity.” It comes as no surprise that demand for Odundo’s work has risen to new heights – a 1999 vessel recently sold at auction for a record-breaking £533,400, and she has a full schedule of exhibitions and commissions to keep her busy through 2026.

Odundo is based in Farnham, Surrey – where she now serves as chancellor of the University for the Creative Arts – but has a soft spot for London, where she studied at the RCA and taught at the Commonwealth Institute. While acknowledging debates around the provenance of objects at the British Museum, she recalls being “absolutely amazed and astonished by its artefacts, particularly from parts of Africa, which gave me a more celebratory idea of where I come from. It encouraged me to emphasise my cultural heritage within my work.”

She is especially pleased to receive the Lifetime Achievement Medal just as she is developing a permanent ceiling installation in the heart of London, within a new building by David Chipperfield Architects – her most ambitious artwork to date. “I’ve always thought my work has an architectural feel to it, but now I have the opportunity to actually put that into practice, and work collaboratively,” she concludes. “I’m really excited about life.”