THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: LADI DOSEI KWALI
Dr. Ladi Dosei Kwali (1925-1984) was a Nigerian potter who is still known today as the pioneer of modern pottery in Nigeria. Ladi Kwali was born in the village of Kwali in the Gwari region of present-day Abuja, Nigeria, where pottery was an indigenous occupation among women. She first came to learn the trade from her aunt, who taught her Gwari pottery-making using the Gwarin Yamma techniques of the coil and pinch methods of pottery. The Gwari pottery-making methods, which she continued to use 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). Ladi Kwali made large pots for use as water jars, cooking pots, flasks, and bowls from coils of clay. The pots were beaten from the inside with a flat wooden paddle, then decorated using incised geometric and stylized figurative patterns (such as crocodiles, snakes, scorpions, and so on), which would be impressed on top of the figures by rolling small roulettes of notched wood or twisted string over the surface of the clay. Afterwards, following the traditional African method, the pots were fired in a bonfire made of dry vegetation.
Ladi Kwali’s talent was recognized early by the then Emir of Abuja (now Suleja), Alhaji Suleiman Barau, who collected several of her pots for display in his palace. It was there that they were noticed by Michael Cardew, a famed studio potter who was appointed as the Pottery Officer in the Department of Commerce and Industry in the colonial Nigerian Government in 1951. Michael Cardew established the Pottery Training Centre (PTC) in Abuja in 1952 and in 1954, Ladi Kwali joined the center as its first female pottery student. At the center, she was taught wheel throwing, glazing, kiln firing, production of saggars, and the use of slip. She completed her training in 1959 and was promptly employed as an instructor.
Ladi Kwali became famous for combining traditional and modern pottery methods to create beautiful pots and bowls. She made bowls with sgraffito decoration, which involved dipping vessels in red or white slip and then scratching the decoration through the slip to the underlying body, using a porcupine quill. She gained international recognition for her exquisite works. She also motivated women to take up pottery. By 1965, the Abuja Pottery Training Centre had four more women from Gwari: Lami Toto, Kande Ushafa, Halima Audu, and Assibi Iddo. They established Dakin Gwari (the Gwari room), a workshop where they worked together to make large water pots.
Ladi Kwali’s pots became artworks that were featured in international exhibitions of Abuja pottery in 1958, 1959, and 1962, organized by Michael Cardew. Although she had no formal education, Ladi Kwali was appointed a resource person of the Abuja Pottery Training Centre, and Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Kaduna State. She demonstrated in different institutions abroad. She gave pottery demonstrations at the Royal College, Farnham, and Wenford Bridge in Great Britain in 1961. She also gave demonstrations in France and Germany. In 1972, she toured America with Michael Cardew. Her works were displayed to great acclaim in London at the Berkeley Galleries. In recognition of her talent and hard work, the Abuja Pottery was renamed the Ladi Kwali Pottery in the early 1980s.
Ladi Kwali received a lot of awards for her art. In 1963, she was awarded an MBE (Member of the order of the British Empire). In the same year, she won the Silver Award for Excellence at the 10th International Exhibition for Ceramic Art held at the Smithsonian Institute, Washington, DC. She was awarded an honorary doctorate from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria in 1977. In the same year, her picture was displayed on the back of the Twenty Naira Note, making her the first woman to be displayed on the Nigerian currency. In 1980, she received the highest national award for academic achievement from the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the Nigerian National Order of Merit Award (NNOM). In 1981, she received the national honor of the Office of the Order of the Niger (OON). The Sheraton Hotel, Abuja houses the Ladi Kwali Convention Center, which is one of the largest conference facilities in Abuja. Major roads in Abuja and Niger state were also named after her. To this day, Ladi Kwali’s works are displayed in notable galleries worldwide.
Ladi Kwali died in Minna, Niger state on 12th August 1984. She was incredibly talented and a legendary pacesetter in her field. Her art lives on and would not be forgotten.