Ladi Kwali was probably the best known of the Abuja potters. Making pots was women's work in the Nigerian villages, and Ladi came to Abuja with a knowledge of traditional Nigerian pottery. The large pots used for water storage were made from spiralled coils of clay, beaten from the inside with an implement like a potter's rib or a spoon, and fired in the open air by covering them in dry vegetation and lighting it.
She did not at first take to the idea of using wheels and kilns and the other paraphernalia of the European potter, but proved to have a natural ability to throw. Cardew encouraged her to decorate her work, something she had not done before, and he even fired some of her traditional work in the Abuja kiln.
Ladi was later to become a very popular member of the touring lecture team; her easy nature and ability to communicate made her well liked and appreciated in Europe, Britain and America. She became Nigeria's best known potter and has been honoured in many ways; she was given a doctorate, the Abuja Pottery was renamed for her and the Abuja Sheraton Hotel is in Ladi Kwali Road.
In 1950 the Nigerian authorities asked Michael Cardew to become 'Pottery Officer' with the aim of improving the quality of the local work. He spent most of the next fifteen years there, having set up the Pottery Training Centre at Abuja.
There were exhibitions of Abuja pottery in London in 1958, 1959 and 1962, and another in Lagos in 1960. Cardew and some of the African potters, notably Ladi Kwali, gave lectures and demonstrations in various parts of the world and Philip Rosenthal sponsored a European tour for them in the mid-1960s.
Upon Cardew's retirement from the Nigerian Civil Service in 1965 the running of Abuja was taken over by Michael "Seamus" OBrien. OBrien was a student of Cardew's, but had a background in painting rather than pottery. He had to learn on-the-fly - a task made more difficult when he was told that the educational subsidy for training would stop and the pottery would have to make a profit.
OBrien stayed until 1972 continuing Cardew's tradition of encouraging the potters to make their own interpretation and decoration for the simple basic shapes he had taught them. He managed to solve, or partially solve, some of the technical problems that had beset Cardew, and further problems with efficiency were also solved during OBrien's tenure. He was concerned that the potters earned five shillings a day, and led a fairly easy life, while farmers were earning two shillings a day and had to find £2-10s once a year to pay their taxes. It was taking the kiln gang - six or seven men - three weeks to cut sufficient wood for a firing. One day he took the laziest man aside and sawed wood with him - one at each end of a bow saw - and they finished the day with enough wood for a firing. The period allowed for the gang to do the work was subsequently reduced from three weeks to three days. In this and other ways OBrien managed to make the pottery pay its way, or appear to pay its way to the satisfaction of the government.
The Abuja pottery, now known as the Dr Ladi Kwali Pottery, Suleja, is still government owned, still active, but without the dynamism that made it famous in its early days. The role of oil in the Nigerian economy made keeping the pottery viable less important. Development is to be found in some of the work by potters who once worked at Abuja and have now set up their own workshops.
|Abuja potters and their marks:|
|Dr Ladi Kwali||LK||(died about 1983)|
|Tanko Mohammud||ATM||(became Pottery Officer)|
|Hassan Lapai||HLP||(became Pottery Officer)|
Bawa Ushafa was the senior potter at Abuja and was one of the first trainees. Kande Ushafa became a trainee in 1963.
|Further Reading:||Nigerian Pottery in an African Context by Michael OBrien|