Throwing muses: the Black female artists who create with clay

When Ladi Kwali met the British studio potter Michael Cardew in the early 1950s, her traditional hand-built water jars were already well known in Nigeria’s Gwari region. Having spotted her work in the Emir of Abuja’s home, Cardew swiftly invited her to join his local government-backed pottery training centre. There she added modern industry’s wheel and kiln to her toolkit to create thrown tableware, and became a star turn within the touring demonstrations Cardew organised in Europe and America.

She was a phenomenal figure, “taking two cultures in her stride”, explains Jareh Das, the Nigerian-British curator of Body Vessel Clay, the forthcoming exhibition teasing out lineages between Black female artists across three generations. Kwali provides the show’s baseline, yet her place in ceramics history is far from straightforward.

Also in the exhibition is Bisila Noha, a ceramics artist whose work in Body Vessel Clay looks to pottery’s unsung African mothers. For her, UK museum collections only tend to include Kwali “because of the connection with a white British man, rather than elevating her pieces in themselves”.

Das wants the exhibition to bring Kwali out of western patriarchy’s shadow, “to individualise her and where she’s coming from, the stories the pots tell us about her life and culture”. To do so, she draws attention not to Cardew, the British incomer, but to the matrilineal teaching crucial to global pottery traditions.

Kwali learned her skills from her aunt and went on to train others, such as Magdalene Odundo, the lauded Kenyan-born British artist known for her swan-necked, swollen-bellied pots. Although they didn’t share a spoken language, Odundo has recalled how she learned from Kwali as a baby might – through touch, not words. “Craft is a language in itself that is universal,” says Noha, who has studied with female potters in Mexico and Morocco. “We can all come together through it, regardless of our background.”

At the same time, the exhibition is a reminder that clay can be as edgy and political as it is timeless. Of the younger artists, Phoebe Collings-James’s ceramic torso with body piercings and scarred skin conjures sweaty club nights, Roman armour, tribal markings and war wounds. “I wanted them to be charged with a queered eroticism,” she says.

Shawanda Corbett, an artist born with one arm and without legs, creates motley-glazed pots fashioned from tilting spheres. They invite us to imagine what it’s like to inhabit different vessels, different bodies.

Jade Montserrat, meanwhile, explores the raw material in its most natural state. In a mud pit on a shooting estate in her home county of Yorkshire, she massages clay over her skin and hair, a Black woman “unearthing and building identity”, she says, as well as raising questions around land, belonging and ownership. It offers a radical conclusion to an exhibition that begins with traditional indigenous pottery. Montserrat’s interest in clay could be the show’s guiding principle.

“It’s about making the circuits of energy evident,” she reflects. “It’s about potential.”