A little girl born in the village of Kwali, Gwari region in the present Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, Nigeria not only redefined the village’s common occupation but she took it to the world.
Early Life: Ladi Kwali began by serving as a pottery apprentice under her aunt. She quickly learned the craft using the traditional method of coiling and pinching. Large pots are beaten from the inside with a wooden paddle from coils of clay are then decorated with incised decorative patterns. Many of the pots made were used for storing water and were also ornaments.
Ladi’s talent for pottery shone as her pots were highly regarded for their beauty and form. Several were acquired by the Emir of Abuja, Alhaji Suleiman Barau, and also caught the eye of Michael Cardew, an English studio potter and Pottery Officer in Northern Nigeria Department of Commerce and Industry. Michael Cardew took one glance at the Emir’s collection and knew had come across an unusual talent.
Talent meets craft: In 1954, Ladi joined Cardew’s pottery training centre in Abuja as the only female potter. She learned to throw pots on the wheel using the sgraffito decoration but also continued with her traditional hand building and decorating techniques an interesting hybrid of traditional African with western studio pottery. The fusion became her signature style taking her work beyond the shores of the country.
Giant strides: While Cardew introduced wheels and kilns to the centre, he also learned the traditional firing and ornamentation methods. Through the symbiotic relationship with Cardew, Ladi’s work became known in Europe and America. Between the late 1950s and early 1960s, her works were exhibited in London at the Berkeley Galleries and also displayed during Nigeria’s Independence celebration in 1960. Though not formally educated, she held people spellbound with her knowledge, skill and amiable character at workshops, demonstrations and exhibitions in Dallas, Los Angeles and Chicago, Italy, Geneva, Canada, Germany and London.
She became Africa’s best-known and foremost potter and was awarded a doctorate, and in 1963 was made Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire MBE.
Legacy: Ladi Kwali’s abiding presence can be seen on twenty Naira note as the potter at the wheel. The Abuja Pottery was renamed the Ladi Kwali Pottery and a major street in Abuja is also named after her.
Ladi Kwali passed away in 1984, leaving a rich legacy of her work. She embodies the creative Nigerian spirit and remains a source of inspiration to anyone wishing to take the seemingly ordinary to levels never before seen.