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Art review: A celebrated ceramicist shows creative potential of clay

Sensuous and strange, the Nairobi, Kenyan-born, English artist Magdalene Odundo’s vessels featured in “Universal and Sublime: The Vessels of Magdalene Odundo” at the High Museum defy the usual notions of use-value we expect from such objects.

Instead, Odundo’s vases, pitchers and urns on view at the High, created over the course of three decades, are expressions of emotion, sensation, sensuality and whimsy. Her vessels appear to shriek and laugh and emit cacophonous sounds by the suggestive molding of their forms. Odundo’s revisionist ceramics reference African artistic traditions, but also the minimalism of Cycladic sculpture, sculptor Hans Arp’s organic forms or Henry Moore’s more sensuous works.

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Many of the works in the exhibition feel anthropomorphic, invested with expressive potential as with a voluptuous black urn molded like a curvaceous opera singer pulling in oxygen for her final note. “Untitled” is a terra cotta-tinted vessel with the comically curving neck and spiky fins of a cartoon sea monster. “No. 3, From Vessel Series III” features funny little earlike projections erupting from its bottom-heavy base and a subtle frown that gives the object the appearance of a melancholy bowling pin.

Odundo’s combination of the fat and the thin and strange humanoid projections or animal-like tails and horns invest a number of these works with a sense of delicious whimsy. Her forms are voluptuous and suggestively fecund and often make a subtle comparison to women as vessels for the creation of life.

Other works have the stark, commanding presence of artifacts. In “Kigango,” “Kigango cha Mama” and “Kigango cha Baba,” Odundo crafts a trio of vessels suggesting mother, father and child. Rather than glazing her pottery, Odundo uses a Roman terra sigillata process, in which a slip of clay mixed with water is applied before the vessels are fired and then polished to a seductive luster. Depending upon the firing process she chooses, Odundo’s vessels turn an earthy terra-cotta hue like Georgia clay, or a rich, deep ebony.

Accompanying these vessels are sketches of Odundo’s designs, which seem more accessory to the main attraction than an illuminating entry point to her work.

Also included in “Universal and Sublime” is an absolutely fascinating set of revisionist dinnerware, “Autobiography,” crafted in the style of English china onto which Odundo has placed the faces of family members: mother, father, siblings and her own child-self. The works are a critique of the British colonial presence in Kenya when Odundo was growing up, and the glorification of all things king and country she saw in her family’s set of china embellished with the faces of the British royals. The dinnerware manages to be both poignant and furiously impassioned, a testament to the invisibility Odundo experienced, in which, “it is very hard to write one’s history in somebody else’s language.”

Though her works reimagine African craft, Odundo’s works don’t reject their origins. Instead they take such inspiration to a new place. Acknowledging both their precedent, and Odundo’s clever revisions, the High has paired Odundo’s vessels with objects from their own collection — musical instruments and human figures from the Democratic Republic of the Congo — that show the connections between these forms and the artist’s delightful interpretations.

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