Magdalene Odundo is one of the most esteemed ceramic artists in the world. Her iconic vessels interweave historical and contemporary making practices from different cultures; British studio pottery, ceremonial vessels from Kenya and Nigeria where Odundo studied traditional techniques, as well as wood carving from the Congo, ancient ceramics from Cyprus, Japan and Peru, modernist sculpture and Elizabethan costume.
Magdalene Odundo was born in Nairobi in 1950. After education in Kenya and India she studied at West Surrey College of Art and Design, Farnham, gaining a first class degree in Ceramics with Printmaking and Photography in 1976. She then taught at the Commonwealth Institute in London before studying Ceramics at the Royal College of Art, London (1979-82).
For her dissertation at Farnham she had revisited Uganda to research ceramic techniques. At the RCA she developed the hand-coiling technique with which she builds up her asymmetrical, pot-bellied vase–forms. The pots are unglazed; the colour comes from the clay body and thin layers of slip clay while the smooth, glowing surface is achieved by burnishing by hand before and after firing. The pots are sometimes fired many times to achieve the right effect. This is a traditional Ugandan pottery technique called emsubi. Her work draws on varied sources including Mexican traditional pottery and Greek Cycladic sculpture as well as sub-Saharan ceramics.
Her use of multiple oxidised firings at high temperatures gives the black ground great depth of colour and subtlety of reflection and, as each firing is an added risk, makes them more precious.
“I am extremely interested in the sharing of ideas, the transfer of knowledge for ceramics arts and crafts practice in general, the exchange of academic experience and collaborations with colleagues at other institutions, universities and communities with my emphasis on links with developing countries.”
Examples of her work are in many public collections including African Heritage, Nairobi, The Art Institute of Chicago and the British Museum, London and in 2001 she was appointed Professor of Ceramics at the University of the Creative Arts, Farnham.
Magdalene Odundo was awarded the Order of the British Empire for Services to the Arts in 2008 and was made a Dame (DBE) in the Queen’s 2020 New Year’s Honours.