Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Lost Legacy of Dr Ladikwali

An echo of soundless abandon, embraces any visitor to the Ladi Kwali pottery Suleja. This small town, that had once been tranquil and in Michael Cardew’s own words “inspiring”, is now replaced by the urban chaos of noisy traffic and residential congestion. The ambiance which had motivated Michael Cardew a British potter employed by the
Nigerian colonial government to choose this place as the location for a pottery training center in 1951, is sadly unseen in the dilapidated buildings and dusty wares, haphazardly placed on conked out shelves.
The center will be fifty five years old this year, though the modern structures there were built in 1973, it was in 1951 that Michael Cardew with the permission and help of the local authorities supervised the building of the training center using local and labor materials.

Suleja, located not far from the well-known Zuma rock, lies between the boundaries of Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city and Niger state. The story of the pottery began in 1950 when there was a perceived need for a homegrown industry that would supply the Nigerian middle class with glazed table ware, suitable for European style meals and hot drinks. The Nigerian pots made according to a traditional method practiced for centuries are distinguished by its nobility and simplicity, but they still lacked “practical” use for a European life style. So, with great admiration for local village pottery, Michael began elaborate research in a bid to find strategic locations for what would become small experimental work stations with a small number of trainees. Trainees were expected to go and start their own centers after fine-tuning their skills, thereby creating a network of trained potters for the rural native pottery industry.
When it came to selecting trainees, whom Michael envisaged to be mainly men, he found that Nigerian potters were mostly female. This was the case especially in Abuja’s Gwari population were he found outstandingly talented women potters. He discovered Ladi, who comes from Kwali, now a municipal area council in the F.C.T, fascinated by her work he convinced her to join him at the center. Michael found her basic skill and genius expounding and he was delighted when she finally joined him in 1954.
Ladi traveled widely, demonstrating Gwari –pot building techniques, later she was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, an unprecedented academic distinction for a woman potter without formal education.
This artistic partnership brought the Abuja pottery industry on the international ceramic world map. Even today, Ladi Kwali’s tableware and hand built pots are considered collector’s items, still auctioned on the internet and saved as museum pieces. Despite his aged and ailing body Michael Cardew and some other British officers worked hard to ensure that Nigerian art and history were appreciated and preserved for the public. His colleagues included Bernard Fagg, who excavated the Nok culture and started the Jos museum.
Even though the Abuja pottery training center never fulfilled the early aim of spreading a network of potters thereby improving the rural pottery industry, It still stands today as a reminder of his passion and devotion for the Nigerian people and their environment. That is why it is so saddening to see the level of dilapidation that has occurred due to negligence by those responsible for maintaining this piece of our nation’s history. By the late fifties the center had become a show piece celebrated in Nigeria and abroad, now it is gradually being reduced to a bundle of rubble, totally ignored by the Nigerian elite and attracting only a handful of curious foreign visitors.

Nigerians as a people are proud of their nation’s culture and art, if all the noise that is made about “celebrating culture” is to be believed. That is why it comes as a shock that a historical location like this, which is just at the door step of our Nation’s capital, has been left to rot, literary speaking. One can only imagine the extent other historical and cultural heritage sites in remote parts of the country would look like. When we neglect to remind ourselves of the inherent talent and creativity of our people by maintaining such structures, soon time will erode all memories of our greatness and achievements. All that will be left of ours will be a shallow display of song and dance staged to gloss over the harsh reality that we are a people with a fading history and withering culture.

The 64 year old Michael Cardew left Nigeria reluctantly to return to his home in Cornwall England, he continued to assist Ladi Kwali, helping with her 1972 exhibition in the United States. Michael died suddenly in 1983 after his active and international life style. In an uncanny coincidence Ladi died about the same time in Minna though she was tragically, still, very young

The Ladi Kwali pottery stands in broken ruins, a heart breaking reminder of Nigeria’s maintenance culture. The four separate buildings that make up the center are surrounded by a broken down wall, further emphasizing the derelict atmosphere. The main hall where some of the best art work used to be exhibited is vacant except for a few colorful but chipped ceramic decors displayed neatly in a small corner of the badly stained wall. This building in comparison to the other three is still in very fine condition, the red brick walls are still standing firmly under the watchful eyes of the still images of Michael and Ladi hanging high up on the wall. Looking up at the determined eyes of these two passionate and creative minds, one is embittered by the condition of what they had sacrificed so much to bring to life. They tried to construct a center of inspiration and productivity, a place where modernization meets tradition in a reverential blend of artistic collaboration. What is now left of their efforts are moldy walls and cobwebbed corners of wasted space.
It’s heart breaking to walk past the broken glass panes that are the windows and doors of the other three buildings. The building on the left side of the compound which is by far the most dilapidated accommodates the potter’s wheels that sit unused, waiting for the generous spirit that would put the necessary pressure on government, and ensures that the center can come alive again. In this same building, Looking up one is greeted by the huge yawning ceiling that allows the rain to pour in further damaging the interior of the already spoilt building.

It is understandable that the harsh economic realities of today may make it difficult to maintain the buildings, and it may even be impractical to expect that the place can still be used as a training center, due to the urbanization of the area. However, it is unforgivable that no one has put significant effort in preserving that piece of Nigeria’s history in a manner that would be presentable to the younger generation.
Is it surprising then, that the young of today would rather embrace the widely televised culture of the western world? They should not be blamed for embracing the ostentatious display of competence and accomplishment they perceive from outside the shores of our country. The cultural inferiority complex that exist today in the minds of the young and old will continue to eat into our nations pride, until one day I fear, there would be nothing to be proud of.

Originally published in Sunday ThisDay on August 27th,2006

No comments:

About Me

My photo
On a Journey to discover the taste of the Living Water!

Blog Archive

Favourite Authors

  • Bessie Head
  • Doris Spelling
  • Fey Weldon
  • Leo Tolstoy
  • Steven King
  • Thich Nhat Hanh