In the fall of 1978, towards the end of my apprenticeship with Michael Cardew, I decided to hitchhike across the Sahara. One reason for this madcap lark was to visit the Abuja Pottery set up by Cardew in the 1960’s, another was to see for myself the traditional pottery of Nigeria and elsewhere in West Africa which had so inspired Cardew. In addition, my middle brother, James, was working at that time on an ill-fated dam and irrigation scheme near Sokoto in NW Nigeria, so I had a place to stay.
The Bakalori Dam displaced many peasant farmers without providing alternative land or financial compensation. Many people died in protests over their loss of livelihood. The project has become known as a classic example of development failure. Soon after his work there as a consultant engineer, James left the field in disgust at the corruption and poor planning prevalent in Third World development projects, and has since become a leading authority on the global timber trade, specializing in issues of deforestation, illegal logging, and climate change.
My journey across the desert was memorable, but those stories will have to wait for another day, for what has stuck with me even more than those adventures were the pots I saw. They are icons of ceramic art, equal, in my opinion, to classical Ming Dynasty porcelains. They have what Cardew described as, “the majesty of form,” and their volume, shape, proportion, and decoration enlighten the pots I make to this day. The level of craftsmanship needed to make these pots also informs my desire to excel as a maker, albeit using a wheel rather than hand building.
Cardew chose the regional capital of Abuja to be the location of his “Pottery Training Workshop” in part because the pots made by the Gwari people in the surrounding villages were so beautiful. Most of these pictures, taken by Danlami Aliyu, are from the nearby village of Tatiko. Danlmai was a protégé of Michael O’Brien, Cardew’s successor as “Pottery Officer” at Abuja. We drove out to Tatiko on noisy scooters for a firing, where greenware made during the week by individual women potters was assembled for a group pit firing one evening, and the next morning the pots were taken to market. It was all quite magical.
Other pictures in this collection are of pots from Ushafa and Kwali, villages more famous than Tatiko, with Kwali being the birthplace of the most famous potter at the Abuja Pottery, Ladi Kwali. She became Nigeria’s best-known potter, and was awarded an honorary doctorate and was made MBE (Member of the British Empire) in 1963. Ladi made beautiful traditional pots with unusually powerful decorations, incising them with pictograms of animals, airplanes and busses, and, under Michael’s tutelage, she also learned to make exquisite thrown wares.
My time in Abuja was short, but I made some pots there, earning the derisory Hausa sobriquet, “Sirikin Iki,” or “King of Work.” It seemed that no one else did much, they slept on the wedging tables, or engaged in desultory cleaning, but everyone had loved Cardew. I stayed with Danjuma “The Kiln,” Cardew’s kiln man, who had four wives and 29 children. Many times each day he would laughingly shake his head at some memory of those days and say, “Michael, Micheal, Micheal, we luff Michael!”
Soon afterwards, my brother James and I drove around other parts of West Africa in a beat up old Land Rover, going to Niger, Mali, Cote D’Ivoire, Burkino Fasso, Togo, and Dohomey, seeking out pots and textiles. Particularly fascinating was time spent in Dogon villages on the Bandiagara Escarpment in Mali.
Reflecting on my brief time in West Africa 35 years ago, it is hard to look at what is happening there now and not shudder. Nigeria is gripped by the same corruption, poverty, disease, and ethnic hostilities, but now they also have to contend with a malignant oil industry in the south, and the brutal Islamic insurgency, Boko Haram, in the north. Traditional pots have been largely replaced by “better” Western products – buckets, enamel pans, milk jugs – while Cardew’s heroic “Small is Beautiful” endeavor to create Anglo-Asian-African pots made from local materials, which were to be sold to the emerging Nigerian middle-class, fizzled not long after his charisma vanished. Read more about this fascinating outpost of the British Empire in Tanya Harrod’s biography, The Last Sane Man: Michael Cardew, Modern Pots, Colonialism and the Counterculture.
And if you get the chance, look at the glorious pots that were made at Abuja. To me they are remarkable talismans of hope, pots made under the oddest circumstances by people who had no business making functional studio pots, but they clearly loved making them, as they radiate individual delight and optimism, not to mention luminescent material quality. They are wonderful to use.
In closing, I remember this heartbreaking comment of Danlami Aliyu’s, quoted in his 2012 obituary, with regard to all that is happening in contemporary Nigeria, “At the moment, it seems we have no hope. Every day, yesterday was better.”
Mark Hewitt works in Pittsboro, North Carolina, and is president of the North Carolina Pottery Center. He was the 2014 Voulkos Visiting Artist Fellow at the Archie Bray Foundation. All photographs, suitably aged snapshots, are courtesy Mark Hewitt.
Above: Mark Hewitt and Ladi Kwali.