Without an advanced machine to quicken the pot-making process and to impress aesthetic designs, Ladi Kwali carved and engraved her name on history-making iconic pottery marked with African culture and identity.
Born in 1925 into a family who preserved the female heritage of pottery, where the girl-child is handed tools, mentored, and left with her imagination to make pots, Kwali a small village in Gwari region became the home of apprenticeship and a school to master the craft of serving humanity with pottery.
The region is located in the current capital of Nigeria, Abuja. The Gwari women are Amazons. They do more than make pots. They journey into the woods to gather woods for the fireplace and carry them home on their backs resting the load at the bottom of their neck. Ladi grew up learning how to make pots from the coils of clay like the women before her but no one remembers or thinks of her with a pot sitting at the top of the spine. She was a creative and an exceptional potter and was highly praised by the community for her unique designs such that the name of the village, Kwali, became her second name.
She didn’t become so good at pottery on her own. She mastered the traditional method of coiling under the guide of her aunt. The process involves beating from the inside of the clay with a wooden paddle forming a pot-like shape which gradually takes shape into an actual pot used for cooking, water storage, or bowls.
When Michael Cardew, a potter from Britain visited Abuja, he saw several of her works in the king’s palace, Emir of Abuja, Alhaji Suleiman Barau in 1950. A year later, he was assigned the post of Pottery Officer in the Department of Commerce and Industry. He then built a pottery training center at Suleja formerly called “Abuja”. At first, he mainly worked with men, but recognizing Ladi’s talent, she became the first woman to work at pottery center.
In the words of her younger brother, Mallam Mekaniki Kyebese, one can picture how much people love her works:
“Even in the early years of pottery making, Ladi Kwali excelled in the crafts and her wares were often sold even before they were taken to the markets.”
In 1962, Cardew and Ladi travelled to Britain. At Winchcombe, a small town in the Cotswold hills of Gloucestershire, England, Ladi made two large clay pots before a small group of English folks (women, men, and children) carrying cameras. She sang as she worked on an old oil drum with her bare hands and a flat wood for smoothening wet clay.
Back at home, she was used to clay drying out fast, so she worked very quickly as if an hourglass was sitting beside her. At the brim area, she impressed line patterns using small roulettes of twisted string (inner and outer) and notched wood patterns round the pots. She styled the pots carefully incising geometric images of a lizard, scorpion, crocodile, snake, fish, and chameleon. Her technique has a touch of mathematical undertones highlighted by consistent display of symmetry.
Prior before this period, she had demonstrated at the Royal College, Farnham, and Wenford Bridge in Britain and other demonstrations took place in Germany and France. A decade later, in 1972, she toured America with Cardew.
Some of the decorative techniques she applied on earthenware vessels can be traced to neolithic period. Ladi went beyond pottery; She was an artist preserving and promoting African art and culture through pot making. Her works were recognized for their beauty in form and decoration.
The Nigerian potter passed away in the early 1980s and Abuja Pottery was renamed after her. From Ladi Kwali Road to Sheraton Hotel’s Ladi Kwali Hall and on ₦20 note are symbols of great achievement.
By Elijah Christopher,