LONDON – Magdalene Odundo is a name that you could be forgiven for not having heard before, but once you see her work, such as those included in the forthcoming Made In Britain sale at Sotheby’s this April, and experience their captivating beauty, it’s a name that you will find difficult to forget.

For those not familiar with her work, I would suggest you take a stroll to the British Museum or the Met in New York to see her distinctive ceramics sitting side by side with the ancient terracotta vessels of civilisations now long-gone. Here you will see her rich ‘borrowings’ shine through in terms of artistic influences, techniques of construction and how she challenges traditional ideas of art and craft.

Magdalene Odundo at work. Photograph by Stephen Brayne, Courtesy of Ceramic Review.

Born in Kenya, Odundo moved to study at Cambridge in the late 1960s, where she was inspired by the collection of the African Study Centre and no doubt drawn to the interplay of art and craft at Kettle’s Yard, collector Jim Ede’s former residence. There works by Lucie Rie and Bernard Leach sit comfortably beside modern British masters, such as Gaudier-Brzeska and Hepworth, as well as continental heavyweights including Brancusi. This dialogue and integration of art, architecture and domesticity was one that was to have a profound impact on Odundo’s later work.

Dame Lucie Rie, Sgraffito bowl, circa 1980, Estimate £7,000–10,000, and Composite flask, circa 1956, Estimate £7,000–10,000.

Continuing her studies at Farnham’s famous art school in Surrey, and later the Royal College of Art in London, Odundo also visited both Leach and Michael Cardew at their studios in St Ives. From the latter she heard tales of his travels in Ghana and Nigeria. As the potter Emmanuel Cooper, whose work is also in this sale notes, through the dialogue raised with her Kenyan roots, Odundo’s works ‘raise the concept of shifting cultural identities, of ancient process and techniques as well as the role of the ceramic vessel in the modern world.’

Magdalene Odundo, Terracotta Symmetrical Piece, 1990. Estimate £10,000–15,000.

Handbuilding in the traditional material of terracotta, Odundo applies a further thin terracotta slip, inspired in part by the Roman technique of terra sigillata, which with labour-intensive burnishing results in a wonderfully glossy, soft finish. Odundo further distorts the final appearance by monitoring the levels of air and smoke in the kiln; an oxidised or smokeless kiln results in the rich, vivid orange colour of Terracotta Symmetrical Piece (1990), while a smoky or carbonising atmosphere (often achieved by the addition of combustible materials such as wood chips or shavings) yields a lustrous black finish as seen in Mixed-colour Symmetrical Flat-Topped with Lugs.

Magdalene Odundo, Mixed-colour Symmetrical Flat-Topped with Lugs, 1987. Estimate £12,000–18,000.

More than just a maker, Odundo holds a prominent position as one of the leading teachers working in Britain, and has curated shows including the excellent Pioneers to the Present (which she co-curated for the Crafts Study Centre with Barley Roscoe in 2002). Here she demonstrated her fascination with the tradition of studio ceramics in Britain, highlighting in particular Rie’s adept skill in making typically utilitarian wares, such as bowls and vases, stand out with fine decoration that would serve to enhance the quality of domestic life and everyday routines.

Magdalene Odundo at work, using a gourd scraper to achieve the vessel’s curved profile and scraping to smooth the interior walls. Photograph by Stephen Brayne, Courtesy of Ceramic Review.