LADI KWALI: the image behind Nigeria’s ₦20 note

The art of using clay and water to produce objects in Nigeria and Africa at large is as old as the people themselves. People, mostly women had began mixing clay and potash with water to mould very beautiful objects such as cooking pots, cutleries and water pots.

However, one woman who had mastered the art and was the first to successfully combine the local method o f production and designing with that of the western world is ladi Dosei kwali.

Ladi kwali was born in 1925 to a family of potters in kwali village, kwali area council, Abuja, Nigeria’s federal capital territory. Although pottery has been the exclusive rights of women in kwali and other parts of Nigeria, the women of Ladi Kwali’s family were exceptional in the art and received recognition from their peers.index 2

The art of pottery was instilled in ladi at a very tender age. She learnt the skill from her aunt with whom her mother served as an apprentice.

Ladi kwali used the traditional coil and pinching method to produce beautiful designs which were spectacular, prompting other potters to describe her as gifted and eminent.

The coil and pinching method involved using clay which is rolled until it forms long rolls of coil. Thumbs are pushed into the center of another ball of clay and rudimentary walls are created by pinching and turning the pot. The pot is then push on a flat surface, creating a base. The base of the pot is less prone to cracking when formed this way.

Different shapes are then formed by placing one roll of coil on top another. The pots are then styled into any particular design. Once these designs are done, the pot is put in a flame fueled by dry grass.

Ladi kwali designs were so beautiful that the emir of Abuja at that time, Alhaji Suleiman Barau had some in his home. It was at the home of the emir of Abuja that Michael Cardew, who was appointed to the post of Pottery Officer in the Department of Commerce and Industry in the colonial Nigerian Government in 1951, saw the works of ladi kwali and was impressed by it.

In 1952, Micheal Cardew established the Pottery Training Centre in Abuja and enrolled kwali as the first female potter. Kwali was introduced to modern methods of pottery such as the kiln firing, wheel throwing and the production of saggars.

Although Kwali learnt the modern method of pottery, she did not abandon the traditional method which she was used to, rather she combined the two, depending on which method best suited a particular job. Her designs were a sight to behold. She made interesting decoration such as the graffito and many others.

Although Kwali was enrolled to learn modern pottery, so great was her knowledge and skill that she ended up becoming an instructor.

Cardew organised international exhibitions of Abuja pottery in 1958, 1959 and 1962 and featured kwali’s workimagess.  In the same period, kwali’s works was shown at the Berkeley galleries in London. In 1961, Ladi Kwali demonstrated her skills at the Royal College in Farnham and Wenford Bridge in London.

It didn’t take long for recommendations to start pouring in for ladi kwali. In 1963, she was awarded Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE). Back home in nigeria, she was honored with a doctorate degree by the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Kaduna State. In 1980, the Nigerian National Merit Award (NNMA) was bestowed on her as well as the national honour of the Ofiicer of the Order of the Niger (OON) in 1981.

Ladi kwali died in1984, but her name still lives on. The Abuja pottery center was renamed after her as the ladi kwlai center. Also a road in Maitama, Abuja is known as the ladi kwali way. She is also featured on the Nigerian 20 Naira note.

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