Pottery artist Anne Adams started out making functional art and working on canvas, but a chance encounter with a popular ceramicist gave her work a different life with clay. Adams’ works use forms and lines creating both rhythm and abstraction. In this conversation, we talk about the intimacy of clay, a process that is intuitive and how every piece of work she makes is a miracle.
You have said in a past interview that meeting the Cameroonian ceramicist Natalie Djakou Kassi set you on your path with pottery. Can you talk specifically about that moment and process?
I had a friend call me on in October 2019, he said “Anne you should come check out an exhibition happening at the pavilion, there are some incredible artists from Lagos showcasing”. I was very used to visiting exhibitions by Abuja artists, so it was going to be a new experience I hoped. Immediately I walked into the hall, I saw Madam Kassi’s work and it was love at first sight, the attention to detail was definitely something! I walk up to her, introduced myself and showed her works from my portfolio. At the time, I was making functional art, painting on flower vases, mugs and canvas. She wasn’t as impressed as I was with myself, she said I could do much more than painting on flower vases, I could make real art with clay. That was the moment for me, so I ask her without even thinking about how I was going to go about it, considering the distance and the hassles of moving to a new place and starting all over , “Will you teach me Ma” and she says yes. I went home, got my affairs in order within the remaining months of the year and I was in Lagos by January 2020 with no prior experience of working with clay.
What was it about Pottery as a medium that stole your attention considering you started off painting on canvas?
I had my first encounter with clay in Junior Secondary school, the art teacher at the time curated a small studio, I used to go and watch him throw on the potter’s wheel, although I never threw anything. I remember just being in awe of the skill and transformation that happened from ordinary clay to a vessel. At that moment I should have known, but I guess it wasn’t the time for me. Fast forward to 2019 when I met Madam Kassi, her works and words ignited something buried away, something that I had to explore. The feeling was very unsettling, I was having sleepless nights after our encounter and I just knew that it was time for change, pottery was calling onto me rather aggressively
Take us through the process of making a piece. What informs the story you want to tell with each piece?
I employ the coil Method in my works to create edges and silhouette to establish forms, which in turn develops rhythmic families of shapes. Building with coil, one at a time allows me an artistic freedom that is golden. I sketch down ideas to produce, but because I employ coil, a disruption is always happening, a flexibility created from intuition that creates very original works. I always end up creating something else from my sketch. After I mold my shapes which usually takes about 2 days, I start carving, depending on the size, it could take 3 days to weeks, I love carving it is so therapeutic by the way. In my works, I want to tell a story of my connectivity, intimacy and intuition with earths most primal element.
A lot of your work is covered in lines and certain motifs bleed into each other, creating these infinity symbols on the object. What started your pre-occupation with these line carvings?
Prior to working with raw clay, I was making works with tribal art symbols, I had always loved to employ intuition to creating my art. Working with lines and motifs requires a certain type of flexibility, it’s all mental exercise. I love the challenge of not knowing if the line or motif I’m going to create will connect to the next line after it. I’ll say that I have a special connection with lines, it shows me that everything is connected, one way or the other, it also applies to my life, I always try to find a way around everything, there’s always a way.
For many indigenous Nigerian and even African cultures, Pottery has a historic tradition much like bronze casting and wood sculptures and carvings. In the art word a lot of those works are only given value based on its antiquatedness. For you working in pottery and ceramics. What has been your experience when it comes to the value of your work?
A lot of people don’t know the process of working with clay. There is so much uncertainty and anxiety that comes with working with the volatile nature of this medium, an airbag left in the clay can cause an explosion in the kiln, works crack sometimes after spending painstaking weeks on carving. When a work comes out well from the kiln, it’s a miracle. When people try to undermine the value I place on my work, I tell them you’re buying a miracle. There’s also a popular narrative that sees pottery as only flowerpots, thereby undermining the value further. I tell people, my work is not for flowers, it’s an artwork, I try to educate as many people as I can. Not a lot of people understand this, and that’s okay. I sell my works only to people that see the value and skill that I put into it.
What do you think your work, style and aesthetic brings to the current visual arts landscape and conversation?
Pottery is an indigenous craft in the Nigerian history, our history is who we are. My work, style and aesthetic tell stories that encompass material and process, which are very central to the current visual arts landscape and conversations. I make things that engage myself, my surrounding and other people.
What are some of your challenges working with this form both technically and systemically?
Technically, I’ll say the rigors of firing and purchasing ceramic materials. In certain countries, potters use electric kiln, here in Nigeria we are subjected to using gas kiln because of lack of consistent power supply. Gas kilns are operated manually, it takes about 13 hours to do one firing, so we have to sit through to regulate the temperature of the kiln manually, it literally takes up the whole day and more days if you’re doing more than one firing. Purchasing ceramic materials is also quite hard, I’d love to work with porcelain, explore glazes and more materials which unfortunately cannot be sourced here.
Systematically, I’ll say the acceptance of pottery as an art form. A number of galleries don’t showcase and curate shows supporting potters. Kudos to the frontiers, Mr Ato Arinze and Djakou Kassi, they’ve actively curated shows for potters over the years. I think to myself, has anyone ever wondered why Ladi Kwali is the only woman on the Naira note regardless of the achievements of other women in Nigeria’s history? Because pottery is actually a big deal and should be regarded as so.
Do you think your work can become a conduit into understanding our histories with pottery and ceramics? Perhaps you are part of a renaissance?
Pottery is an ancient practice in Nigeria’s history, however ancient Nigerian potters predominately created pots for cooking and other domestic purposes. Perhaps, this contributed to the slow growth of the sector, potters in other countries create pots for domestic purposes, as well as, vessels of timeless art pieces. From this history, I understand what I need to do to create a lasting effect on pottery as an art form, still connected to the history, but creating a new orbit for Nigerian pottery.
How would you say your work has evolved from when you started?
I’m doing a lot of research into subjects that interest me and are engaging to other people. I’ve definitely come a distance from when I began. I’m currently exploring new bodies of work. My upcoming series introspects distortion. I’m exploring my command of clay, by pushing to structural limits. I’m also working on telling stories of the Precolonial era. My mindset is changing and maturing as I continue to look within.
You have also mentioned in the past that there are very few working pottery artists in Nigeria. What are the ways in which you have managed to stay inspired and fresh within your practice, evolve your aesthetic and remain authentic to your voice?
I love reading, I love researching, I want to know what’s happening around the world. Thank God for technology, I’m in Lagos but I stay connected with potters from around the world through social media, keeping up to date on trends. The important thing is that I have a voice within me, I don’t shut it out, I listen to it, nurture it, filter what I see, take what I can use to further my growth, and that’s how I stay authentic to myself.