Interview by Louisa Buck

Dame Magdalene Odundo OBE (born 1950 in Nairobi, lives and works in Farnham) is an internationally esteemed ceramic artist. Her distinctive burnished hand built vessels are repeatedly fired for richness of colour and inspired by her extensive travels and research into craft traditions. She is Professor Emerita for Ceramics and Chancellor of the University for the Creative Arts.

Odundo’s work featured in Artists Newsletter, August 1983, p16 in a review of the exhibition ‘Fire and Smoke’ at Midland Group Gallery, Nottingham, written by Fran Bugg, Lecturer at Sunderland Polytechnic.

Bugg explained that Odundo ‘coils her pots using a red terracotta body, then smoothes them using sections of shaped gourd rind. The surfaces are then covered with layers of slip and polished before firing. The final rich results are achieved in reduction, turning the clay a dense black.’What did the 1980s mean to you both personally and professionally?
The 1980s will be remembered as the last decade for universal free education in the UK at any level. Anyone going to the Royal College of Art (RCA) today would probably find it difficult to imagine how this impacted on our art practices. This freedom from financial concern allowed us to grow individually and enhanced our ability to be experimental and to participate and venture beyond chosen disciplines.

I think we were very indulgent in approach and perhaps a bit complacent in acknowledging the privileges we were accorded. We might have even felt entitled to this free education, abundant tuition, individual space to work in and, for those of us at the RCA, twenty-four hour access to studios. That freedom however, came with responsibility that we embraced with enthusiasm and passion.How did your work develop during this time?
My work continued to develop very slowly. I had by then decided I would make work using hand-building methods, basing the techniques on non-mechanised traditions. These slow methods of making have served me very well, allowing me to think through my practice and to value the simple material, clay, that is a vehicle for those thoughts.

Were there any key moments or turning points in this period?
I think the turning point for me, may have happened as early as my RCA degree show in 1982, when I was offered my first exhibition by Rosenthal Studio Haus in Hamburg, Germany. I have never stopped working apart from the last two years of enforced lull due to a near fatal ailment. I am back on track now, I hope.

How did you become aware of a-n? Why did you want to get involved?
I cannot be sure of when I became aware of a-n, however, I know that a review or two of exhibitions and promotions of workshops in the publication gave my work some visibility. Throughout my teaching career I always encouraged students to source a-n for wide ranging information about exhibitions, residencies and jobs available in the arts.What role did a-n play in your development and career?
Any coverage or mention in a publication especially positive ones are always an advantage and will have helped in exposing the work. So, I am thankful for inclusion in a-n.

How significant was a-n in raising the pressing issues of the times?
I am pretty certain that the articles and adverts on ceramics and pottery exhibitions in a-n helped the galleries, fairs and festivals in the promotion of the art. It definitely helped with raising awareness of the practice. This coverage was important in helping dispel the distinction made between art and craft in the use of clay, which then paved the way for more widely embracing exhibitions such as ‘The Raw and the Cooked’ in 1993. Clay today is very popular as a material to use and is universally used in almost every aspect of art and art expression without any need for classification. I am sure a-n will have played a part in this advance.40 years on, what are the key changes for young artists starting out now?
As I mentioned before, working with clay has become so universal and because of its appeal, the art of ceramics and pottery has grown in recognition. The biggest change however, is that for many young makers/artists the base knowledge of the expansiveness of ceramics in the west shifted with the closure of the ceramics industrial base. This move to cheaper labour in particular to the East, in my view, led to a deprivation of national skill and knowledge that complemented design and the applied arts. Thus, at present, there is a tendency to think ceramic art (meaning sculpture and installations) is new. Innovative, yes, but not unusually new. For millennia figurines, urns, cups and jars, wall painting, murals, architecture, are all proof of the enduring human preoccupation with making art!

What advice would you give your younger self?
I am not sure that I would change much. My life has been one of hard work, passion and enthusiasm. Perhaps I would have liked to travel for fun when I was younger but I do not regret my route to the present. I am fortunate that my work has led to many travels and journeys to date, that have informed the pieces I make and myself as an artist.

Header: Magdalene Odundo in the early 1980s. Photo: Karen Norquay
1. Magdalene Odundo, Black Vessel, 1983. Photo: Duncan Ross
2. Magdalene Odundo in the early 1980s. Photo: Karen Norquay
3. Magdalene Odundo, Orange Vessel, 1989. Photo: Abbas Nazari
4. Magdalene Odundo, Black Vessel, 1986. Photo: Duncan Ross

Louisa Buck is a writer and broadcaster on contemporary art. She has been London Contemporary Art Correspondent for The Art Newspaper since 1997. She is a regular reviewer and commentator on BBC radio and TV. As an author she has written catalogue essays for institutions including Tate, Whitechapel Gallery, ICA London and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. In 2016, she authored The Going Public Report for Museums Sheffield. Her books include Moving Targets 2: A User’s Guide to British Art Now (2000), Market Matters: The Dynamics of the Contemporary Art Market (2004), Owning Art: The Contemporary Art Collector’s Handbook (2006), and Commissioning Contemporary Art: A Handbook for Curators, Collectors and Artists (2012). She was a Turner Prize judge in 2005.