Ladi Kwali is remembered as Nigeria’s most impressive and well-known potter. Leaving behind a rich legacy through her work and through the Ladi Kwali Pottery Centre, she has shaped the world’s opinion of African pottery-making and pottery-making as a whole.
Fame and recognition were far from the traditional path for Nigerian craftworkers of the 20th century. Kwali grew up in a family of women potters, unsurprising as her culture viewed pottery as being the near-exclusive domain of women. With its utilitarian uses for water storage, cooking, and much more, pottery was a very useful skill to possess for someone working in the home. In addition to this, some Nigerians viewed pots in a religious light which explains the incredible ornamentation of work from this time period.
One of the reasons that Kwali was able to reach the level of success she enjoyed was her association with Michael Cardew. Cardew was a successful English studio potter who came to Africa as a recruit by the Nigerian colonial Government. His position as pottery Officer led him to co-found a pottery in Ghana, and then to Abuja where he met Ladi Kwali. While Cardew was eager to work with Kwali, he held on to the idea that the pottery studio should be primarily men, with women potters as more of a fringe group. Considering Nigeria’s tradition of women potters this seems to be an unwise decision. And it’s telling that the breakout star of the pottery studio was a woman. But nevertheless, old British values won out and women remained a minority at the studio (Not to say that many women did not come from the studio, a number of women potters followed Kwali’s footsteps in producing impressive work and even touring throughout Europe).
Kwali came to the studio already highly skilled as a potter, fully developed before Cardew entered her life. However, Cardew was able to help her achieve international renown using his connections with English galleries, universities, and other institutions of learning.
This is where I would like to insert an image of Ladi Kwali’s pre-studio work. However, I’ve scoured the depths of the internet (Ok, not really. But I’ve spent almost an hour trying to find images. I have a life! And kids! Ok, not really kids. But still.) to no avail. I can, however, describe her earlier work as preferring a traditional spiralled coil method of pot building. The clay would be be coiled, and then beaten and smoothed from within to seal cracks. The pots were also decorated with figurative and geometric patterns.
Cardew pushed for Kwali to use European pottery techniques including using a pottery wheel and glazing and firing using a high temperature kiln. Kwali’s work became an intriguing hybrid of Nigerian and European artwork. She maintained an overall style traditional to Nigeria, but she incorporated European techniques. Cardew affected Kwali’s work, but Kwali also strongly affected Cardew’s work and the work of other European potters.
It’s interesting to consider whether our world’s interconnectedness is “improving” art or making it… somehow bland. By inviting an English potter to work with Nigerian potters were they diluting their artistic traditions or growing stronger by combining them? Today we’re seeing work that has an international flavor, bland though it may be (Get it? It’s a flavor joke! You’re welcome for my classy jokes, internet). I suppose this stems from our easy access to communication with the rest of the world as well as in art schools teaching certain techniques and styles as correct as opposed to others (Although come on certain lazy art student friends of mine, the teachers aren’t constantly stifling creativity. Sometimes our work isn’t “keeping true to my/your own vision”, it’s just bad!)
Take a look at some of the pieces Kwali created. I think that they’re beautiful, and I would love to have gorgeous pots and bowls like these in my home.
Kwali’s work was superb. And influential to many potters to follow. By leaving Nigeria and traveling and speaking in Europe Kwali introduced much of the world to Nigerian pottery. She also opened the door for other women potters (Asibe Ido, Halima Audu, and others) to travel and sell their work.
Of course, not everyone was receptive to Kwali’s work and career (a large part of which had become “performing” for audiences by speaking and building pots). In one notable case Cardew and Kwali spoke at Howard University and were not well received by the school’s black audience and by their Professor of Journalism. Cardew insulted the black students in his attempt to “show them their roots”, preferring African leaders and intellectuals to a potter, and the professor viewed the talk as propaganda, a way to pander to the US’s interest in Nigerian oil.
Overall it seems as though Cardew was trying to help Nigerian potters, in a way that may have diluted some of their traditions, but did help to breathe air into the pottery industry. Kwali’s work is an incredible example of the growth Cardew helped to promote.
Before visiting the National Museum of African art I knew nothing about Ladi Kwali. Despite her apparent renown among late 20th century potters I’ve never heard of her or seen her work before. I think that this is partially because I’m not entirely familiar with the pottery world (I’d also never heard of Cardew) and partially because art history classes tend to focus on Western artwork. It’s a shame, because the work from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and other non-western areas produced amazing artwork that most of us have little knowledge of. I hope to see a more inclusive future of art history, in which artists from a variety of backgrounds are given more real estate in our textbooks and more time in our classes.
How else will we learn about great artists like Ladi Kwali?