This exhibition, curated by Professor Simon Olding and Professor Magdalene Odundo, is comprised of ceramics (with some textiles) from the important collection drawn together by Michael OBrien. The ceramics explore his deep and resourceful fascination with pots made in Africa, and most especially in Nigeria. In addition, the exhibition is used toencourage a critical re ection on OBrien’s own ceramics, which are less well known. We can see Africa in them, too.
Michael OBrien (born 1930) came relatively late to pottery, and his career is inextricably linked to that of Michael Cardew. He trained in painting, at the Farnham School of Art. It was, however, the head of ceramics there, Henry Hammond,who encouraged OBrien to join Cardew’s in uential course in 1959 at his Wenford Bridge Pottery in Cornwall. The course,‘Fundamental Pottery with Emphasis on Geology and Raw Materials’ was attended by many key ceramic artists of the day. OBrien moved on to teach at a secondary school in Leicestershire, but Cardew’s course gave him the basis from which he built his knowledge of clays and glazes.
OBrien kept in touch with Cardew, and he applied to join his Pottery Training Centre in Abuja, Nigeria. He started therein 1963, and as Tanya Harrod writes in her biography of Cardew, ‘it was a homecoming: the rst four years of [OBrien’s]
life had been spent in Uganda and Kenya where his father, of the aristocratic Irish clan OBrien, worked as a vet’.1.
OBrien became a pivotal gure at the Pottery Training Centre, improving its facilities and work patterns, and eventuallymanaging the Centre after Cardew’s departure. He also played an important role in developing the skills of a cohort of Nigerian potters, most especially Danlami Aliyu, and more recently Stephen Muya at the Bwari Pottery. In 1973 OBrien returned to England and began to work at the Wenford Bridge Pottery, running it in Cardew’s absence. He worked next at the Farnham Pottery, returning to Nigeria in 1979 to teach in Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. Prompted byDanlami, he developed a radical approach and after ve years at the university, left to put it into practice. MarabaPottery was started with Danlami. The teaching and technical work they did together allowed the Maraba Pottery toexpand and last for twenty years. When it nally collapsed the potters, now very skilful, returned to Maraba villageand started small potteries where more wheel-thrown pottery is made than in the rest of the country.
OBrien eventually settled back in England in Headley, Surrey where he has given remarkable support to many aspiring potters, including Magdalene Odundo. He is developing a Pottery Training Centre there, and stays in close contact with his fellow Nigerian potters.
1. Tanya Harrod, The Last Sane Man: Michael Cardew, Yale University Press, 2012
View the exhibition hand list here