Humans have been digging mud out of the ground and turning it into pots for 28,000 years. That’s a long time, so it’s amazing that there’s still anything interesting to be said with the stuff. But here we are, wandering the corridors of this lavish old building, exploring how black women artists push ceramics into new forms.
As any ceramic-nerd will tell you, pots are vessels, both literally and figuratively. They can be filled with water, sure, but they’re also containers for ideas, and those come spilling out across this show. It starts with Ladi Kwali, a Nigerian potter who came to England in the 1950s and fused her regional traditions with modern ceramic practices. Her earlier works here still serve a purpose – they’re still bowls and plates and water jugs – but they sit at a cultural juncture between Nigeria and England, between hand-molded tradition and new approaches.
They’re rough hewn, clever things.
Her influence is everywhere here. Magdalene Odundo owes her a debt with her unglazed, asymmetrical, scratchy pots, as does Bisila Noha, whose two-legged sculptures are the best things on show. They symbolise having one foot in the past, the other in the future; one with the mother, the other with the father; straddling two different cultures. They’re rough hewn, clever things.
But a lot of the other contemporary work is slightly more hit or miss. Jade Montserrat’s ink drawings feel out of place, and Vivian Chinasa Ezugha’s pile of clay, which I really like conceptually, just doesn’t sit quite right alongside the sculpted works here.
More than anything though, this dark, old fashioned, wood-panelled mansion makes the works feel stuffier and less contemporary than they are. They deserve a bit more space and brightness to breathe in.
Shawanda Corbett’s tall colourful pots are beautiful though, and Phoebe Collings-James’s ceramic body armour sculptures sum the whole exhibition up, with their vision of strength through clay. This is about black women using clay to tell their stories, about this most ancient of art materials being constantly reinvented in all its matrilineal, historic, folkloric glory.