The Remarkable Legacy of Ladi Kwali: From Village Potter to National Icon

Ladi Kwali, also known as Ladi Dosei Kwali, OON NNOM, MBE, left an indelible mark on Nigerian culture as a celebrated potter, ceramicist, and educator. Her journey from a humble village in Northern Nigeria to gracing the back of the 20 Naira note is a testament to her exceptional talent and contribution to the world of pottery.

Born around 1925 (although some historians suggest 1920) in the village of Kwali, situated in the Gbagyi/Gwari region of Northern Nigeria, Ladi Kwali grew up in a family deeply rooted in the tradition of pottery making, particularly by women. As a child, she learned the art of pottery from her aunt, mastering the traditional coiling method. Her craftsmanship resulted in the creation of stunning large pots, cooking vessels, bowls, and flasks, each painstakingly crafted from clay coils and adorned with intricate incised patterns, featuring scorpions, lizards, crocodiles, chameleons, snakes, birds, and fish.

 

What set Ladi Kwali apart were not only the beauty of her pottery forms but also her distinctive decorative techniques. Her pots showcased symmetrical designs with mathematical undertones, captivating the eye with their precision and elegance.

In 1954, a pivotal moment occurred in Ladi Kwali’s career when she joined the Abuja Pottery, founded by Michael Cardew, the Pottery Officer in the Department of Commerce and Industry in colonial Nigeria. At the Abuja Pottery, she transitioned to wheel throwing, mastered glazing and kiln firing, learned the production of saggars, and experimented with slip application. Notably, she introduced sgraffito decoration, a technique involving dipping vessels in colored slip and then etching designs through the slip to reveal the clay body underneath. She would also embellish her pottery by rolling small roulettes of twisted string or notched wood over the clay surface, creating exquisite patterns.

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Ladi Kwali’s pottery and techniques traced their roots back to the neolithic period, following the region’s rich traditional practices. Firing her creations in bonfires of dry vegetation was a nod to the time-honored methods of her ancestors.

In a cultural context where pottery was predominantly a female pursuit, Ladi Kwali’s ceramics transcended utilitarian objects, becoming celebrated “art objects.” Her work gained international recognition and was featured in exhibitions around the world, including in Great Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. In 1963, she was awarded the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire), and in 1977, she received an honorary doctoral degree from Ahmadu Bello University. Her list of accolades continued to grow, with the Nigerian National Order of Merit Award (NNOM) in 1980 and the Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON) in 1981.

Ladi Kwali’s enduring legacy extends beyond her impressive achievements. Her portrait graces the back of the Nigerian 20 Naira banknote, making her a symbol of national pride. A major street in Abuja bears her name, and the Sheraton Hotel boasts the Ladi Kwali Convention Center, a prestigious conference facility. Her artworks can be found in collections worldwide, including the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in the USA, the Victoria and Albert Museum in the UK, and the Aberystwyth University Ceramics Gallery.

In 2022, Ladi Kwali served as the inspiration for an exhibition titled “Body Vessel Clay, Black Women, Ceramics & Contemporary Art” at Two Temple Place, marking 70 years of ceramics by black women artists. Her enduring impact was further recognized when she was featured in the Google Doodle on March 16, 2022, paying homage to her extraordinary contributions to art and culture.

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Ladi Kwali’s journey from a village potter to a national icon remains an inspirational testament to the power of talent, dedication, and preserving cultural heritage.