Ladi Dosei Kwali was the pioneer of modern pottery in Nigeria.
Life and Career
Kwali was born to Gbagyi parents in 1925 in the village of Kwali, located in the Gwari region of present-day Abuja, where pottery used to be a common occupation among women. Her first name means "born on Sunday" while her second name is the name of her hometown.
Kwali grew up in a family in which the womenfolk made pots for a living. She first came to learn Gwari pottery-making as an apprentice to her aunt, who taught her the Gwarin Yamma techniques of coil and pinch methods of pottery. The Gwari pottery-making methods, which remained in her repertory throughout her life, produce three major object shapes: the randa (a large water storage pot), the kasko (a household storage pot), and the tulu (an elaborately decorated storage pot often used in religious festivals). The large pots used as water jars and cooking pots are beaten from the inside with a flat wooden paddle and decorated with incised geometric and stylised figurative patterns. Following the traditional African method, they were fired in a bonfire of dry vegetation. Kwali developed a mature sense of form and an intimate knowledge of clay characteristics, skills which are important to a potter.
Kwali came to international prominence for her talents in the 1950s with help from the famed English studio potter, Michael Cardew (Baban Shaku) who had helped launched the Abuja Pottery Training Centre along with Kwali in 1952 and spent the following fifteen years teaching and learning from Nigerian potters. Prior to the Centre's launch, Kwali had worked as a professional potter, as well as trading and running a shop in Minna, Niger State.
Kwali took her time in making her designs and they stood out because of their beauty and exquisite charm. The Emir of Abuja at the time, Alhaji Suleiman Barau, was so enchanted by her work that he bought many of her pieces for his collection. It was during a visit to his palace that Cardew first noticed her works and encouraged her to join the centre.
Many of her early works were hand-built storage jars, water pots, bowls, casseroles, flasks and big jugs, which comprised impressed stylized designs of animals such as snakes, scorpions, lizards, and crocodiles. When she joined the pottery centre in 1954 as its first woman potter, Kwali was trained in new methods taught there, such as glazing, wheel throwing, kiln firing, and stoneware. She became famous for her experimental and innovative works merging the Gwari style she was proficient at with the modern techniques, creating glazed dishes, bowls and beakers, with stylised animal sgraffito. These are the works for which she is best known and they were a great asset to the growth in the popularity of Abuja pottery outside Africa.
She also continued to produce pots using her traditional hand-building and decorating techniques. Most of these were glazed and fired in a high-temperature kiln, and representing an intriguing hybrid of traditional African and Western studio pottery styles. Her presence at the centre also made it easier for more women to join and by 1965, another pottery centre called Dakin Gwari was opened in Abuja, with four women running it and working together.
Through Kwali's contact with Cardew, she and her work became known in Europe and America and she became a very popular member of the Centre's touring lecture team of the Centre. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, her work was shown to great acclaim in London at the Berkeley Galleries. Kwali remained associated with the Abuja Pottery Training Centre works until her death. She gave lectures and demonstrations at home and abroad on her craft for the duration of her career.
Awards and Honours
In 1958, 1959, and 1962, Kwali's work was exhibited in London and her contributions helped keep the Pottery Centre afloat. She was made a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 1963 and was awarded an honorary degree byAhmadu Bello University in 1977. Her pottery was also displayed during Nigeria's independence celebrations in 1960. In 1980, the Nigerian Government invested her with the insignia of the Nigerian National Merit Award (NNMA), the highest national honour for academic achievement. Kwali is the first and only woman to appear on Nigerian currency: her portrait is on the back of the twenty-naira note.
She received a number of other honours in her lifetime, including being made an Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON) in 1981, and a Silver Award for Excellence during the tenth International Exhibition for Ceramic Art at the Smithsonian Institutein Washington, DC. The Abuja Training Pottery Centre was renamed the Ladi Kwali Pottery Centre, and major roads in Abuja and Niger State are named after her.
Death and Legacy
Kwali died on August 12, 1984 at the age of 59 in Minna, shortly after Cardew who had died the previous year. Although married, she did not have any children, but she left a rich legacy in her work and the students she left at the Abuja Pottery Training Centre.
- The Pottery Studio
- Nigerian Wiki
- Aberystwyth Ceramics
- Kwali Obwoi Union
- Nigerian Pilot