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A body in clay, a work by Magdalene Anyango N. Odundo

Magdalene Anyango N. Odundo, Symmetrical Reduced Black Narrow-Necked Tall Piece, 1990, terracotta, 40.6 x 25.4 x 25.4 cm (Brooklyn Museum) speakers: Dr. Peri Klemm and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(gentle piano music) - We're in the Brooklyn Museum looking at a ceramic pot by a Kenyan-born artist that works and lives in England. - This work by Magdalene Odundo is a black chrome ceramic piece that is just exquisite. - When I first looked at it, I assumed that it was thrown on a wheel because it is so precise. But in fact, it's made with coil. That is a snaking of clay that is then smoothed to create the broad surfaces of the pot. - It's very wonderful modern vessel that focuses both on form and color. - Well, the color is really exquisite. First of all, the surface is mottled. It's got a slight iridescence to it and the color is almost indescribable. It's a very warm, almost coppery silver. - When the artist was finishing her degree in England she began getting interested in pottery and went back to Nigeria and to Kenya to look at the way in which African women make their pots. And again, it's that same coiling technique that she was interested in. She also went to San Ildefonso Pueblo in the Southwest to look at the way in which Pueblo potters, fashioned their Black-on-Black Ware. - We have this person who lives very much in the modern world, who's looking not only at her own heritage, that is the traditions of Africa, but also looking at the American Southwest at native American traditions. - Her work is really transnational on many levels. So she herself was a migrant with her family. She's looking back to her African roots and so she's associating herself with generations of Sub-Saharan African women who make vessels for everyday use, but she's also a contemporary artist who has created a work of sculpture that's really no longer utilitarian, but rather all about the form itself. - We have this broad bowl, this form of the bottom, this tall neck, these two wonderful circles that ride off the neck at the base and then these points that extend out from the neck that almost look like spines or of scarification. - Her work has often been compared to the body because the way in which we describe pottery, right, it has a lip and neck, a belly. And in fact, many of these little embellishments, little rounded forms or elongated forms like the six we see on the neck are described as things that are done to the body. Keloid scars, raised scars that are given to a woman at puberty to add to her aesthetic appeal. - But here, abstracted from the body as pure form. - We talk about the body as dynamic, as changing through time. In this case, Odundo is also referencing the properties of clay, which are soft and malleable when first extracted from the earth and through time and process and heat become water resistant and firm and static. - But she's maintaining that organic quality subtly. Look for instance, at the six points at the neck, the top two point down ever so slightly as if they are responding to gravity or as if they are in a sense, responding to the turn of the neck. - In addition, the rings at the midsection also seem to be slightly different in size. So while at first glance it appears wheel-made and perfect, we begin to see as we look closely that in fact there is a human and a handmade quality to these vessels. - Which is almost impossible to my eye. Look at the precision of the lip itself. There is such a delicacy and perfection there. It seems as if it was made out of the finest Chinese porcelain, and then if you look very closely, it's not a single, but a double lip. - This artist is interested in creating a one of a kind sculpture that is unique and almost perfect. - And what a great example of the modern condition, in the way in which we can look back to not only our own traditions, but other traditions that we find valuable. (piano jingle sounds)