“I would hate to be a lawyer,
I would hate to be a doctor, all I want to be…… is a potter.”
Michael Cardew 1958 at the Abuja (now Suleja) Pottery
Reverberating words of passion and devotion remain long after the man who utters them is gone. This is especially so, when these expressions are followed by actions that reveal a tireless dedication to a vocation that is not known to have much monetary gain. Michael Cardew (1901-1983), a pioneering British potter spent most of his life in the tedious routine of, mixing clay, throwing, molding, firing and glazing earthenware products, many of which are still used all over the world today. Though now they are more valued as a collectors pride than for utility purposes.
From the cold damp weather in Britain to the dusty hot climate of western Africa, Michael traveled to many parts of the world exhibiting his work, promoting and sharing his passion for traditional English earthenware; he has influenced many potters in America, Australia and of course Britain, his efforts put the Abuja Pottery industry on the ceramic world map, promoting the traditional pottery of the Gwari women whom he found particularly talented.
All in pursuit of his ardor for pottery he spent a lot of time in western Africa, leaving behind his family and his newly established pottery in Wenford Bridge Cornwall, he was enamored by the traditional abilities of African potters and with such reverence for their work, he tried with the permission of the locals and colonial administration to introduce the studio approach to pottery making which was previously not practiced in western Africa. His wrinkled image still stands today on the cobwebbed wall of fame in the Ladi Kwali Pottery in Suleja, a small town in the outskirts of the Federal Capital of Nigeria, his passion still echoes down the derelict halls of the neglected pottery, stirring up a disconcerting awareness that all his efforts has resulted to naught.
Closer investigation will reveal however, that Michael Cardew and his successor Michael O’Brien did not labor in vain, their efforts has changed the face of traditional Nigerian pottery, leaving behind a small group of talented studio potters who continue to battle the elements of water, clay and fire not to mention the classic “Nigerian factor”.
Michael who came from a respectable middle class British family background shunned a scholarship and a life in academics to pursue his passion for pottery. From the age of twenty-two, he began spending most of his holidays making pottery, Michael’s life long romance with the wheel and Kiln began, Inspired as a child by his parent’s collection of lead glazed earthenware pots in their holiday home at Devon.
Early in his career Michael worked with Bernard leach, these two are described by many experts as the leading potters of the twentieth century, particularly in Western Europe. This is why his work with many potters in Nigeria can hardly go unnoticed, considering the fact that his activities transformed the Nigerian pottery industry.
Potteries established by many people he trained are still sprinkled all over northern Nigeria, providing handmade ceramic products that would have been otherwise imported.
Graduating with a third class degree in humanities, he left his academic pursuits behind chasing whole heartedly a life as a potter, a life of “holy poverty”. Michael’s fervor for traditional English earthenware has lead to a revolution in Nigeria’s traditional pottery industry. There’s rarely a potter especially in northern Nigeria who has not been influenced My Michael Cardew and his Successor Michael Seamus O’Brien, Two unrelenting individuals who have left much more than their palm-prints on the sands of Nigerian ceramic history.
Michael's Career in West Africa began in 1938, when he was offered a job to teach in Achimote College Gold coast (now Ghana); here he was expected to make available locally produced pottery for war time supplies. Using his own money he set up the Vume pottery working with Clement Kofi Athey, whom he left behind to run the pottery when he got a posting in Nigeria in 1947. Michael Cardew was appointed the senior pottery officer by the Nigerian colonial government who also saw the need for an upgrade of the traditional pottery industry. Working with other expatriates he set up potteries at Okigwe and Ado-Akiti. After much research, he decided Abuja, Now Suleja to be the Perfect location for the northern region pottery training center.
When Choosing trainees for the pottery in Northern Nigeria, the talented Gwari women could not be left out, even though it was impractical for most of the women to adapt to the studio style of pottery making, Ladi From Kwali succeeded in joining Michael’s team of trainees and together they toured America, London and Canada showcasing traditional Gwari methods of pottery making. Ladi’s pots are in museums today with its unique designs and hand built balanced well rounded body that sits on its base. Its form is complimented by the characteristic mottled black and brown surface. The decorative designs of many different animals and insects – lizards, scorpions, fish and snakes – are particularly finely drawn. The collectors Value for her work remains especially due to the blending of traditional Gwari forms and imagery with a high-fired glazed stoneware body.
Ladi Died in 1984 leaving behind a legacy that has by far out lasted her time. Michael Cardew left Nigeria to return to England in 1965 he latter died in 1983, but his work in promoting appreciation for traditional Nigerian pottery continued with Michael O’Brien, Cardew’s immediate successor. O’Brien Continued to train potters one of whom is Danlami Aliyu. Together they set up the Al Habib Pottery in Minna. Today Danlami Aliyu’s international and local recognition places him currently as Nigeria’s most talented potter. He of course does not make the traditional low fired pots commonly used in Nigerian homes for flower pots in the urban areas and for water storage in the rural areas. These types of pots are still made in the rural areas all over Nigeria. Here in Abuja Gwari women continue their pottery heritage, many of which can be bought at different locations all over the city. Danlami and many other contemporary Nigerian potters like Steven Myha of the Bwari Pottery continue the reverential blend of traditional designs and elaborate fine glazed finishing that holds an appeal which depreciated the value of mass produced ceramic wares.
The hand-made locally produced pottery varies in prices, from as little as two hundred and fifty naira to as high as two hundred and fifty thousand naira. The question however that lingers is -where is our modern day Ladi Kwali? How is it that of the hundreds of women potters all over northern Nigeria, not one has emerged into the lime light, opening her own pottery like the Jacaranda and Maraba potteries in Kaduna and the Bwari pottery here in Abuja. Once again, by omission and commission women have been left behind in this sweeping evolution of craft and lifestyle.
But one thing is for sure, Michael’s dream has come true, the Oriental-European style of pottery has flourished in Western Africa, perhaps when the endangered Nigerian traditional pottery industry finally dies due to lack of interest by the Nigerian Elite, all that will remain will be the fruits of labor planted by Michael Cardew and others like him, who dare to dream and give every thing they have to bring beauty into our lives.