Magdalene Odundo at the High Museum

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Magdlene Odundo, two untitled vessels
Two untitled vessels by Magdalene Odundo, left, burnished and oxidized terra-cotta from 1989 (private collection), right, burnished and carbonized terra-cotta from 2013 (Collection Maxine and Stuart Frankel Foundation for Art, Bloomfield Hills, MI).

Despite the High Museum of Art’s claim that “Universal and Sublime: The Vessels of Magdalene Odundo,” on view through October 15, shows the “trajectory” of the artist’s career, most viewers will perceive consistency more than anything else. It’s as if her work sprang full-blown from her head and hands. Particulars change but the underlying character does not.

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Odundo (British, born Kenya, 1950) has certainly made a variety of forms, but every one, every type, shares both an elegant contour and a seductive, almost skinlike surface. These terra-cotta pots, which she begins by coiling and further shapes by hand, average about 20 inches tall. They are not glazed: she coats them with slip (liquid clay) which she burnishes to seal the surface. They are most often some tone of orange—the natural terra-cotta—or carbonized to a perfect black or a mottled black and brown.

Magdalene Odundo. Photo by Ben Boswell.
Magdalene Odundo. Photo by Ben Boswell.

Typically her vessels have a bulbous belly and a rounded base—the imperceptible foot suggesting historic precedents made to nestle into soft surfaces (such a Greek amphoras with pointed bottoms)—and elongated necks. Among the older works in the show (from 1989 and 1990) are two black vessels also reminiscent of Greek examples because of their pairs of handles that give them a defined front and back. The earlier of the two has a nearly heart-shaped body and a substantial neck that flares to a mouth as wide as the pot’s belly. The handles are rolled strips that rise from the lip in a way that might suggest Mickey Mouse ears, but the lines continue down the neck to the shoulder, giving an elegant underscore to the fluid profile.

Magdalene Odundo(British, born Kenya, 1950), Untitled, 1995, burnished and reduced terracotta.Maxine and Stuart Frankel Foundation for Art, Bloomfield Hills, MI.
Magdalene Odundo, untitled, 1995, burnished and reduced terra-cotta. Collection Maxine and Stuart Frankel Foundation for Art, Bloomfield Hills, MI.

Loop handles appear again among more recent works, in a different size. For example a 2005-06 work is a somewhat pendulous cylinder with a slightly bulging ring near the top from which sprout two tiny loops that suggest earrings. In between these extremes, Odundo explored many contours of necks, some with creaturely animation evoking snakes or sea creatures or cartoon characters, others sacklike or recalling a bullhorn.

What seems most crucial, and what binds all the vessels together in a seamless body of work, is the sensuous surface and the harmonious contours. Odundo combines stability and elegance, historical reference and uniqueness, vulnerability and assurance. The show itself also had opposite qualities: It gave luxurious space to the vessels, most were presented singly in vitrines, and they utterly held their own. The advantage of the rather small vitrines is that viewers were allowed to come quite close to the pots; the disadvantage is that the reflective Plexiglas surface comes between the viewer and the glorious tactility of the pot.

Installation view of Magdalene Odundo's Wedgewood porcelain
Installation view of Magdalene Odundo’s Authobiography, 2002, a Wedgewood porcelain set featuring family photos. (Photo: John Paul Floyd)

A subsidiary room for the exhibition includes a video interview with the artist plus several African vessels, one of which, depicting in its form a woman with an elaborate hairdo, offers a human interpretation for the graceful necks of Odundo’s vases. A second small room presented sets of Wedgewood china, titled Autobiography, which Odundo designed for an exhibition in 2002. The pink dishes feature hand-printed silkscreen transfers depicting herself and relatives as a comment on cultural identity and as a retort to the colonialism under which she grew up in Kenya. The exhibition also benefits from a number of Odundo’s drawings of the pots—again, so sympathetic that it’s impossible to tell whether they came before or after the ceramic work.

Janet Koplos is a critic, educator and curator based in St. Paul, Minneapolis. She is a contributing editor at Art in America, where she was also senior editor from 1990 to 2008. She is the co-author, with Bruce Metcalf, of Makers: A History of American Studio Craft (2010, University of North Carolina Press). 

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