Considered one of the premier ceramicists working today, Magdalene A.N. Odundo, born in Kenya, produces ceramic objects whose beauty emanates from their voluptuous forms and shimmering surfaces. Hand-coiled and scraped smooth with a gourd, Odundo’s objects are laboriously produced. After the clay is shaped, it is covered with slip, fired, and then burnished by hand. The object’s color is determined by the firing technique: a first firing in an oxidizing atmosphere turns it red-orange while a second firing in an oxygen-poor atmosphere causes the clay to turn black.
This method places Odundo within the tradition of pottery production in sub-Saharan Africa. In most of Africa pottery is made primarily by women, and Odundo recognizes and reinforces this connection through her work’s anthropomorphic references to the female body. But her work also plays with traditional associations. For one, Odundo sees her works, unlike the utilitarian pots created by women, as containers of form and color. By conceiving her objects not as vessels but as sculpture—traditionally seen as the purview of men—she blurs the boundaries between these gendered realms.
Born in 1950, she received her initial training as a graphic artist in her native Kenya. In 1971 she migrated to the United Kingdom, where she worked in commercial and graphic arts but also began experimenting with clay. Dissatisfied with graphic design and interested in exploring clay further, Odundo returned to Kenya and then traveled to Nigeria to study the thousand-year-old techniques women have used to build and fire pottery. In 2008 she was appointed Office of the Order of the British Empire in the Queen’s Birthday Honour’s List for services to the Arts. She was also awarded the African Art Recognition Award by the Detroit Art Institute’s Friends of African and African-American Art. In 2011 she was appointed a Patron & Trustee of the National Society for Education of Art & Design, NSEAD. Her work is in the collections of many international museums including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Brooklyn Museum, New York; National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles; Stedelijk Museum Voor Hedendaagst Kunst, Neatherlands; and the Museum fur Kunsthandwerke, Frankfurt, Germany.