Ceramics: Art and Perception


Greenham Common Dish. (Stephen Brayne.)

The British Craftsmen Potters Association’s shop and gallery (the CCC) is located on the opposite side of Great Russell Street from the main entrance to London’s British Museum. The CCC shows objects that many see as irrelevant in a post-industrial society. Hand-made pots of uncertain function and status that mimic the techniques and forms found in the latter but are otherwise utterly different in significance and meaning. The historic pots in the British Museum were embedded in the economic, cultural and social context in which they were made. Despite the ethnographic and anthropological isolation imposed by the museum they retain the authority and power that shared value and a common cultural language seems to bestow.

The museum’s African collection was radically reconfigured when it was rehoused in 2010. Formally located next to London’s fashionable Burlington Arcade as the Museum of Mankind, the director had to contextualize the artifacts by synthesizing their cultural origins, complete with a somewhat unconvincing reconstruction of an African village. The new display presents these magnificent works quite differently. The works are clearly displayed as art, not artefact – something reinforced by the dramatic lighting, the style of hanging and the inclusion of contemporary works that clearly signify sculpture, such as the ‘tree of life’ constructed from rusty Kalashnikovs. Some of the other modern work, however, seems relatively tame, lacking the power and material presence of the older work or the edge and rootedness of contemporary artists such as South Africa’s Nandipha Mntambo.

The theatricality of the gallery gives the collection a visual status it deserves but at the same time reinforces a Eurocentric view of acquisition and consumption. The aestheticizing of these artifacts aligns them more closely to the work across the street in the CCC where pots are fetishized as exclusive and individual.

In November 2015 a posthumous retrospective exhibition of the Sudanese potter Siddig el Nigoumi was shown at the CCC in support of a book launch on Nigoumi’s life and work by the historian Alan Windsor. It offered both gallery and museum a more peaceful polemic of identity than is currently being played out with many forms of violence and suppression across the world.

Nigoumi’s art education was in the Sudan and England. As one of Sudan’s top calligraphers he taught in the national art college in Khartoum, who funded him to study ceramics in London. He was professionally active in both countries but as a result of government interference virtually the entire art staff in Khartoum resigned, leading to a dispersal of talent. As a deputy Head of Department, resignation was a brave decision. For the latter half of his career Nigoumi was entirely based in Britain – never returning to the continent of his youth. The art traditions of Sudan appear consistent with positive cultural exchange, where an enduring regional style and aesthetic absorbs and domesticates external influences producing an enriched, but distinct, cultural identity. The influence of European, Christian art and particularly Muslim art traditions flowing through Mecca are evident in his work. When Nigoumi settled in England in the small prosperous town of Farnham he arrived as a developed and skilled artist. His work in this period was the creative outpouring of a mature artist responding to a visually stimulating new environment, exploring the potential of new materials and processes and synthesizing this with memories of the Africa he had left.

Royal Wedding dish. (Stephen Brayne.)
The iconic image in Bernard Leach’s A Potters Book of women ‘feeding the flames with bundles of dry grass’ is a misunderstanding of the process.

One body of work from this period involved a range of reduced stoneware glazes that Nigoumi used like slips. Washes of dark glaze informally poured across the pots surface provide a back-ground to precise trailed images inspired by the wonderfully decorated Nubian houses which were overwhelmed, both literally and metaphorically, when the power of the Nile was harnessed by the construction of the Aswan high dam. This was a project deemed necessary to enable Egypt to develop into a dynamic modern nation. Nigoumi often combined these delightful images with Arabic calligraphy; masterfully rendered in techniques associated with European earthenware as well as classic oriental glazes modified with oxides, an anathema to purists. His subject matter also embraced British popular culture such as the technological triumphs of the time, as seen through the eyes of his young family: Spaghetti Junction, a particularly complex confluence of motorways, and the Concord, the iconic supersonic passenger airplane developed by French and British engineers. Nigoumi embraced the naivety of his children’s vision with a similar powerful directness that is found in the carnival head-dresses of river and sea monsters on display in the British Museum. Both reflect the African genius for synthesis and adaption.

Perhaps the most poignant piece from this stoneware series is a decorated dish titled Om El Hassan (Message to my Mother). A plump stylized bird, a dove or perhaps a carrier pigeon, drawn with dots of blue stained glaze surrounded by ivory colored Arabic script. Alan Windsor’s book explains these texts are the names of places Nigoumi visited with his mother in and around Sudan’s three major cities. The three-dimensional form and the two-dimensional decoration combine to make a comforting image, a kind of nest. The image and its execution stand proud but the title betrays the silent pain of the diaspora.

Triangular dish with Arabic calligraphy of the name of Nigoumi’s son Digna and 1985, the year of his 18th birthday. (Stephen Brayne.)

In parallel to the glazed stoneware he also worked with earthenware; burnished, incised and often blackened with carbon, a technique Europeans might see as authentically African and safe in terms of classification and value. Technically, however, these pots of Nigoumi are an artifice. Common to many traditional bush firings is that they are fired without a kiln. However, by using a range of fuels that burn at different rates such as wood, sorghum husks, straw and hay, they not only generate heat but also retain it long enough to convert the clay into ceramic. The iconic image in Bernard Leach’s A Potters Book of women “feeding the flames with bundles of dry grass” is a misunderstanding of the process. The additional grass is not feeding the flames but smothering them, plugging gaps in an insulating covering of straw to prevent flame (and heat) from escaping. Leach did not recognize the subtlety of these bush firings and the potter's skill in managing them. But to successfully fire many scores of pots, often individually of considerable size, in under an hour is impressive with any technology. As a result of this process the body of the pot is impregnated with carbon. Although this gives an attractive finish it also reduces their porosity so, when used to contain water, the slow seepage ensures loss is minimal while allowing for some evaporation. Unlike glazed-ware, this slight porosity keeps the contents cool (it could be argued that the high-fired stoneware that Cardew pioneered in Nigeria failed to provide a viable economic alternative to industrial production, while being a poor substitute for traditional methods in the absence of a modern infrastructure). Traditionally pots are made individually but the firing is a shared enterprise, one of many, no doubt, that has a social as well as a practical function.

Nigoumi’s burnished pots were fired in an electric kiln, a relatively safe way to ensure the hours of painstaking making are not at risk. The carbonizing was produced by a technique I believe Nigoumi invented. Once fired, the pots were held over smoke from a tight screw of smoldering, resinous newspaper. Periodically he would rub the pots with a piece of lamb’s wool to remove the excess soot but also to prevent the pot from overheating. A laborious process but rewarded with a rich dark patina, seductive to eye and hand. It is an effect that superficially connects Nigoumi’s work to that in the museum. But the solitude of the doing – its synthetic nature and its prime aesthetic purpose – signify his isolation and the problems of redefining his identity as an artist in Britain, other than the ones others sort to bestowed on him.

I first met Nigoumi in 1968. Conspicuous for his work, his natural courtesy and gentle personality but also as the only black man in Farnham, his African-ness reinforced by the distinctive tribal scarification on his face. Many took him to their heart, but as a largely middle-class town they would have had a benevolent view of Britain’s colonial past and treated Nigoumi with a degree of paternalism. It was a time when the civil rights movement in America was stirring communities of every skin colour around the world. In Britain’s cities tensions between working-class white and black Caribbean, began to spill out beyond the ghettos in which they had largely been contained. This had yet to impact on prosperous, conservative Farnham or present any challenge to the philosophy of the town’s art school where Nigoumi worked as a technician. Although many of the pottery staff at the time made oriental inspired pots, Nigoumi appears to have been typecast. Deputy-Head of the Ceramics Department and much respected expert on oriental glazes Paul Barron wrote that Nigoumi made “fine burnished and engraved coil pots in the living African tradition”, however in a course built around Michael Cardew’s pioneer philosophy and Bernard Leach’s belief in the supremacy of oriental ceramics, stoneware was implicitly seen as technically and aesthetically superior. As Nigoumi’s reputation grew it was his burnished pots that were sought after, and their associated techniques he was asked to demonstrate. In the many books and magazines where Nigoumi’s work is represented his portrait, unlike others, is also often included as if to confer African authenticity among the celadons’, shinos’ and tenmokus’ of his British colleagues.

Nigoumi brilliantly subverted what might be called the white gaze. Windsor’s book recalls how when he was first employed at Farnham School of Art he was constantly hassled by the Head of Department who, although very fond of Nigoumi, no doubt held the view that as a race blacks were lazy, one of the many myths of difference used to justify the colonial past that was still in currency at the time. Nigoumi’s response was to always carry a bucket, full or empty. This signifier of work in progress had an immediate impact and the bullying stopped.

More profoundly his own ceramic work referenced current events rather than some idealized oriental past. Wise Men commemorated the Christmas-time peace talks between Egypt and Israel’s presidents, brokered by US foreign minister Henry Kissinger. Greenham Common used the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament symbol to commemorate the woman-only protest against the instillation in Britain of Pershing Cruise Missiles. The image is one of Nigoumi’s most memorable, a wall of CND symbols stand in defiance like the women themselves. Less charged imagery included the inspiration he got for pattern from crossword puzzles and the lines and arrows that mark our roads. Nigoumi was amused when I described the latter as dignifying the insignificant.

The Victoria and Albert museum holds a dish of Nigoumi’s in its collection. It commemorates the royal wedding of Charles and Diana combining Arabic calligraphy with the union flag of Britain. The marriage proved more fragile than the pot, but unlike the tsunami of royal tat the wedding invoked, Nigoumi’s piece transcends the event itself and remains a magnificent piece of decorative design.

His work was not as political as this may sound. Having full ownership of his craft and tradition he was free and confident to invent new decorative motifs, inspired by the every day, and to document the modern world he was in. The Japanese born potter Takashi Yasada, who often stayed with the Nigoumi’s when he taught at the art school, similarly felt pressure to conform to European ethnic stereotyping when he settled in Britain. Like Nigoumi he also found, because of and in spite of, traditions instilled in youth he could subsequently make work that was assured, contemporary and personal.

Although his work was in demand Nigoumi did not enjoy the same level of success as Yasuda. I believe the reasons are many and varied including Nigoumi’s self-effacing personality. Windsor’s book takes an important step towards recording Nigoumi’s historical importance. Its launch and accompanying exhibition however coincide with a growing fear of religious extremism, mass immigration and anxieties arising from the impact of technology on how we individually see ourselves and the communities to which we think we belong. We should then be attentive to how our institutions represent historical and contemporary culture and ethnicity. We must be alert to what they choose to show us, how and where; as well as how these chosen works (and the relationships created between) will be received by their diverse audience.

Nigoumi’s response was to always carry a bucket, full or empty. This signifier of work in progress had an immediate impact and the bullying stopped.
Car Park Markings dish. (Stephen Brayne.)
Ibreeq, 1988, earthenware drinking vessel. (Stephen Brayne.)

The potter Magdalene Odundo introduces both Windsor’s book and the British Museum’s African collection. In the latter we are greeted at the gallery entrance with a tall burnished pot of Odundo’s made with such control and precision that one marvels that it has been coiled by hand; a display of skill easily accepted into the European canon. Its references are impeccably cross-cultural, its form suitably suggestive, non-specific and minimalist. Potter and former editor of Ceramic Review, Emmanuel Cooper has compared Odundo’s work to the elegance of fashion models on a catwalk. It exudes aloof, urban, contemporary sophistication. The message is – admire but do not touch.

Odundo’s pots are much admired but they are the product of her privileged background, raised with an adopted international perspective. Her work reflects an understanding of the cultural landscape created from the civil rights and feminist movements…

It is an interesting choice given the physicality and function, both as ritual and utility, of the historic/traditional work in the gallery. Odundo’s pots are much admired but they are the product of her privileged background, raised with an adopted international perspective. Her work reflects an understanding of the cultural landscape created from the civil rights and feminist movements, but as a Kenyan born British potter her inclusion in the museum’s African collection seems somewhat racist. Odundo’s outstanding market success raises the question whether her work represents creative freedom, so exuberantly found in Nigoumi’s work, or if it is confined by a modern, capitalist, Western trope where skin color continues to denote difference.

Nigoumi tells a very different story, perhaps more representative of the diaspora. Despite his loss of status, a common experience amongst immigrants, his work remained personal and inquiring. Gentle, observant, playful, his work celebrates and reflects his experience of two continents. Despite his exile his work always retained the warmth and humanity that links it, and us, to so many of the artifacts in all the British Museum’s galleries. The museum does possess three works of Nigoumi, all made in Surrey within a few miles of Odundo’s studio. It is difficult to understand why Nigoumi’s work is displayed in room 48 (European 1900 – Present) while Odundo is said to represent modern Africa. I hope the directors took the opportunity to cross the road to view Nigoumi’s retrospective and will reconsider their curatorial policy. Nigoumi’s display in the African collection would recognize his unique contribution to the extraordinary diverse stories that come from the great artistic heritage of Africa. This relocation would celebrate Nigoumi’s integration of these stories into a Western narrative and his gift for deepening our understanding, and respect, for the experience of others. A timely prerequisite for a more peaceful world.

Further info

Alan Windsor, also a friend and colleague of Nigoumi, was formally Head of the Art History and Cultural Studies department at Farnham. His book Siddig el Nigoumi: A Sudanese Potter in England is published by Lund Humphries ISBN 978-1-84822-181-9

Siddig Abdelrahman Talha el Nigoumi 1931-1996

About the Author

Sebastian Blackie, now retired, was Research Leader for Arts and Professor of Ceramics at Derby University. Formally Head of 3D BA Hons at Farnham. A former colleague and friend of Siddig el Niguomi and Takashi Yasuda and final year tutor to Magdalene Odundo when she studied ceramics at Farnham.