Pioneering Ceramics

Clay preserves our varied experiences. Made from fine particles of minerals, flora and fauna, and dug from the layers of the land, its basic composition is inherently linked to the evolution of the Earth, and humanity’s connection to it. Yet, despite this unthinkably long and interconnected global history, ceramic collections are often under-profiled, and the pioneers who pushed the medium forward remain overlooked. Two Temple Place’s touring exhibition Body Vessel Clay makes a stop at York Art Gallery this summer, and illuminates the creative lineage of Black women ceramicists and artists from the last 70 years, celebrating their remarkable contributions. Objects, sculptures, performances, paintings and films highlight the social importance of the medium, whilst drawing on race, gender, colonialism and nature.

Featured is groundbreaking Nigerian artist Ladi Kwali (1925-1984), who was the first woman to enrol at British potter Michael Cardew’s (1901-1983) Pottery Training Centre in Abuja. Her works expand on indigenous pottery traditions to test the boundaries of technique, form and aesthetics, pushing the way forward for her contemporaries. Close, grid-like mark making, graphic patterns and etches of insects and animals rise from the surfaces of glazed pots. Jumping forward 50 years, Phoebe Collings-James’ (b. 1987) How many times can I surrender to you? (your living has taught me how not to die) (2021) mirrors Kwali’s use of expressive indentation and incising. The five-piece painting depicts the “expression of a desire for wholeness in the midst of grief,” with black, cracking slabs providing a background for a stretched figure. The exhibition is a true testament to the ties between potters’ practices and fired earth milestones.

York Art Gallery Until 18 September |

Words: Saffron Ward

Image Credits:
1. Ladi Kwali. Photography: W. A. Ismay. Courtesy of York Museums Trust.