The Abuja Pottery & Michael Cardew

A Colonial Review

Michael Cardew in 1936 - courtesy of the Guardian

Who was Cardew?

Michael Ambrose Cardew was a British studio potter born in 1901. Cardew is well-known for being the first apprentice potter at the Bernard Leach Pottery in Cornwall, where he worked in the seventeenth-century English slipware tradition. Following the onset of the Second World War, hand-made ceramics became irrelevant and unnecessary, prompting Cardew to accept a salaried role in the Colonial Service as a ceramist at the elite Achimota School in Ghana.

It is at this point where we must examine the motives for Cardew’s journey to Africa: Ghanaian pottery was a well-established traditional craft. The Achimota school had not requested a studio potter, but had been assigned one by the British Colonial Service. It appears that Cardew’s initial intentions for travelling to Afrcia was not for the benefit of African pottery, but for the benefit of the Cardew and the Colonial Service.

 

Eventually, the school’s pottery department turned to industrial-style manufacture to provide pottery for British West Africa. Principally serving the army and the rubber trade, the new pottery in Alajo was ultimately unsuccessful – it failed to become profitable, apprentices rebelled, and the kilns were failing. The Alajo pottery eventually closed in 1945, so Cardew relocated to Vume on the southern Ghanaian coast, where he ran another unsuccessful pottery. He returned to England in 1948.

Keen to return to Africa, Cardew was offered the position of Pottery Officer in Abuja, Northern Nigeria, now known as Suleja. His time at the Abuja Pottery Training Centre, working alongside British and Nigerian potters, will be the focus of this blog post.

Not dissimilar to his time spent in Ghana, Cardew was appointed by a colonial office to bring British studio pottery techniques to West African communities.

The Abuja Pottery Training Centre

The traditional local pottery in Abuja was known as Gwari pottery. This type of ceramic centred around domestic and functional pots, made by coiling, pinching, and beating clay. They were distinctively decorated with geometric patterns and motifs inspired by the natural world, including lizards, birds, crocodiles, and insects.

With an admiration for the robust and practical Gwari vessels, Cardew’s intention was to combine British studio pottery techniques, such as glazing and wheel throwing, with the Gwari forms and decorative traditions. Cardew carried the master-apprentice model to Africa based on his belief “that Africans should not make the ‘blind leap’ from ‘primitive’ to twentieth-century life and should, accordingly, undergo some kind of apprenticeship, reproducing the various stages of European development” (1).

Despite the fact that existing Gwari pottery techniques were complex and long-established, Cardew’s purpose in Nigeria was to teach people new skills, whether they needed them or not. He introduced modern tableware to the Abuja Pottery in the form of glazed earthenware, with a new sgraffito technique that involved sketching Gwari designs into the slip; Cardew felt that this would satisfy the need to introduce new techniques, whilst appealing to the “primitive” (as described by Cardew himself) tastes of the local people. For this, he needed to import a different type of clay that was able to withstand the intense firing temperatures. He also needed to import the glazes themselves.

Ladi Kwali

Ladi Kwali was born in 1925 in the Gwari region of Nigeria. Pottery was traditionally considered a women’s craft, and Kwali learned to coil pots as a child. She later became a master potter, and one of the few women to join the Abuja Pottery Training Centre. The fact that Cardew’s pottery upheld a clear gender divide is something that is often overlooked in scholarship. As a white male, Cardew was able to turn a traditionally female craft into an art form, demonstrating how colonialism and patriarchy are mutually upholding. 

Having mastered Western techniques under Cardew’s tutelage, such as the wheel, he encouraged Kwali to combine her knowledge of traditional Gwari methods with Western techniques including glazing and kiln firing. This resulted in a fusion of traditional Nigerian ceramics and Western studio pottery. As well as pots, she also made bowls, mugs, and dishes, decorated by dipping the vessels in red or white slip and then scratching the designs into the slip using a porcupine quill. 

Under Cardew’s influence, Abuja ceramics were transformed into art forms, and retailed to tourists and foreigners for high prices; Kwali’s individual pots have sold for over £8,000 each. Ultimately, the pottery was started by an Englishman, invited by a colonial government, and bought by Europeans. Cardew himself noted the downside of Kwali’s high-fired, glazed stoneware water pots: “it is arguable that there was something slightly false in the idea, seeing that they were too heavy and too expensive to be used as water pots or for any purpose other than decoration” (2).

Nevertheless, Kwali’s enormous skill as a potter should not be overlooked – although Cardew’s influence introduced Kwali to the Western art market, she was a talented and successful potter in her own right, and had been long before Cardew set up the Abuja Pottery.

Cardew and the Colonial Problem

The Abuja Pottery Training Centre can be considered Michael Cardew’s African success. After his failings in Ghana, the Abuja pottery produced highly saleable ceramics that gained international recognition and went on to become collectors’ pieces. However, we must consider Cardew’s time in Africa in its inextricably colonial context.

Cardew’s fusion of traditional Nigerian and Western techniques ultimately altered the function of the pottery. To Cardew, success was measured by financial gain and global recognition, whereas the success of Gwari pottery was measured by its utilitarian value. Kwali altered the design of the traditional pots to suit collectors and tourists who were in search of a something beautiful – Cardew’s pot provided not only a fusion of techniques, but a fusion of cultures into something that was comfortably Western, with a hint of ‘African’ – there is a reason traditional Gwari pottery was never as popular with foreign tourists as Cardew’s hybrids.

Ultimately, Kwali modified her designs to suit the Western palette. Her once functional water pots became unsuitable for local use: the thick glazes made them too heavy to carry once filled, “and prohibited the evaporative cooling process for effective use as water coolers in the village” (3).Cardew’s interference in Gwari pottery can be considered in one of two ways:

1. He turned Nigerian pottery into an internationally-desirable art form, bringing revenue and tourism to the Gwari region, and catapulting Kwali into the awareness of the Western ceramics scene.

2. Cardew’s fusion of Western studio pottery and traditional Gwari techniques was a self-serving vanity mission to prove that Cardew could successfully educate Nigerian people in the art of British ceramics. It was successful because it provided buyers with a product that was acceptably African, without being too African. It also worked as a way to encourage local potters to adapt and build on their existing skills. Ultimately, the Abuja training centre was a cultural imposition because it was produced for a colonial agenda.

It may seem cynical to condemn Cardew’s intentions through a contemporary lens; that is to say, holding him to the ethical standards of today which were not the same in the 1940s and 50s. However, it is necessary to consider his legacy and the way in which the Abuja Pottery is remembered. His influence on Kwali’s career is undeniable, but it important to acknowledge that she was the driving force behind her artistic production – Cardew simply introduced new techniques that would appeal to new audiences. Nonetheless, his capitalist approach came at the cost of traditional Abuja pottery, whose function and purpose was lost in the transition from utilitariansim to art.

Interestingly, the legacy of the Abuja pottery has lived on, leaving Cardew’s name behind; today in Nigeria, Ladi Kwali is a household figure, and Michael Cardew is not.

(1) (‘The Breath of Reality’: Michael Cardew and the Development of Studio Pottery in the 1930s and 1940s’, Tanya Harrod, Journal of Design History, 1989, 2:2/3 (1989)

(2) Michael Cardew, ‘Ladi Kwali: The Potter from England Writes on the Potter from Africa’. Craft Horizons (32): 34–37, (April 1972)

(3) African Voices, (2004) “Ladi Kwali, An African Potter‟

Thanks for reading!

The Art Wanderer

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