|Conference Papers & Reports|
of Abuja 1961-62
Preparing this talk and seeking out material that may be useful to Liz Moloney has taken me back to the time when my life was changed and its future pattern was established. Living and working with Michael Cardew was an extraordinary education. Everyone who met him will recall his wonderful conversation and breadth of knowledge. Meals were frequently like symposiums as we discussed - or mostly I listened enthralled - to ideas on pottery, books, ceramic research, philosophy, history and memories of his earlier life. Sadly I did not, like Boswell, record these conversations in detail - never thinking at the time how valuable such recollections would be. However, I did keep a reasonably complete diary and have been able to find most of my letters home. Re-reading these after forty years has transported me back to a wonderful period. While in Northern Nigeria I took quite a lot of photographs - some of which were useful to Michael when he became a travelling lecturer and guru. Mainly I concentrated on the native/indigenous pots and potteries - taking things like the town of Abuja, our living accommodation, the countryside and people for granted (sadly the exotic so quickly becomes the everyday). If there is time I'd like to show you some of the slides at the end of my talk.
Introduction to Michael
Letters were exchanged and arrangements made - agreement for my visit came from David Roberts, Permanent Secretary for Trade and Industry, 'He's a very good friend to me and the pottery and a most excellent person - a very devote Catholic but that's never been an obstacle to me'. There was no chance of any payment as the Training Centre could only carry one white man:
Michael was uncertain that he would return after the present tour as he was considered old at the age of sixty one. I was offered bed and board for about 30/- (£1.50) per week, a reasonable bed and mattress, mosquito net, sheets and blankets 'of a sort' clothes cost very little since one wears very few. Luckily I reckoned to have just enough funds left over from my travels to finance my stay plus flight from Sydney to Kano with a stop over in Rome so I could go home for a short visit after two years travelling. While in England I visited many potters recommended by Michael including Bernard Leach who said Michael was wasting his time in Africa.
Arrival in Abuja
The old government residential area, known as baracki, is up a hill to the left. We climb a winding avenue with mango trees on either side. On the way up are several bungalows, occupied by the other baturie or whites, and right at the top is Michael's splendid round house - the former District Officer's residence. This is about thirty to forty feet in diameter with a central round bedroom with radiating rooms, for eating, storage and bathing, like the slices of a pie. A sitting room cum bedroom protrudes at the front and the bian-ghida with thunder-box at the back. All this is crowned by a magnificent bamboo and thatch conical roof. The view to the North West is superb with low hills rising from the plane. The area around Abuja is dotted with dome-like igneous rocks - some hundreds of feet tall. The largest, Zuma Rock, towers one thousand feet and is about a mile long. A separate round house, blackened by smoke, serves as kitchen and fifty feet or so away is a ten foot diameter servant's house which I was to occupy. The staff consists of Labran, cook and general factotum, plus Tanko the small boy.
Michael's neighbours on the hill are five teachers at the local school plus a bluff Yorkshireman, Mr Towers in the Public Works Department, who does nothing but complain about the natives and his silent wife. A few miles out of Abuja live Mr and Mrs Looms. A dynamic, self-made cockney, 'Loomey', is wheelchair-bound but runs a forestry and trucking business. There is also 'Sandy' an ancient, retired tin-miner who came out just after the 1914-18 War. Four miles on are the mission ladies, who run a medical centre and still further off are Nevil Priestly (an old Etonian) who mines tin and seems to be some sort of 'white-hunter'. Althea, his wife, could be in Virginia Water with chintz and silk; all rather Kenya. As it turns out we don't socialise very much. Michael and I aren't keen on Monopoly with the teachers but enjoy a regular weekly drink and natter with Loomey. From time to time the splendid Emir of Abuja joins us for dinner and it's not unusual for passing travellers to join us for meals or stay-over.
The Training Centre developed out of Michael's original commission when he first came to Nigeria. He had been employed by the colonial government to explore ways in which the traditional pottery industry might be upgraded and improved to fill the need for domestic ceramics. In his 1950 report Michael stated that the traditional pottery had evolved to a refined state of beauty and practicality. It fitted local needs and could not be improved. However he suggested a Centre could be set up to train a steady supply of potters who could produce glazed wares to supply the needs of the new middle class. Returning to their home towns the trainees would be helped to establish small local potteries backed up with technical assistance from the Training Centre. For various reasons this scheme had not really worked in practice so by the early 1960s the emphasis changed and Abuja was keeping the best trainees to form a nucleus of potters to produce high quality ware for the local and developing overseas market. When I arrived all efforts were concentrated on producing a quantity of first rate pots for exhibitions in London and Paris. New Zealand had recently asked for ten crates but Michael could only send three. Meanwhile, as I was to discover, quite a lot of teachers and government officials called at the pottery - usually out of normal hours and needing cups of tea, meals and sometimes beds. To try and fill this demand most of the nine potters are permanent staff including two women: Ladi Kwali, of international fame, and Halima Oudu, her understudy, almost too pregnant, when I arrived, to sit on the wheel. Earlier, she had been a great attraction potting away with her older baby strapped to her back. In all there were sixteen workers - really too many but in Africa there can be a tendency towards unnecessary job creation. Michael would like to attract more women from other tribal areas with a view to build on the success of Ladi's stoneware Kwali pots - but husbands 'no allow'. Pot making is usually carried on in the wet season April to October. The dry months make turning, handling, putting on spouts very difficult. By the time I arrived most of the special pots for exhibition had been made, though some were still to fire. Michael was, therefore not doing much making - only some plates and a few platters. However, to illustrate some subtle point he would often take over from one of the potters and throw or handle part of a batch. It amused and somewhat annoyed him that visitors often insisted on only buying pots with his stamp - 'if they could only see they'd be able to find my pots all over the shop'. He spent much time working on catalogues for London and Paris as well as writing Pioneer Pottery. There was also no end of correspondence with various government departments.
I was given a wheel and allowed to get on with my own work - as an inexperienced thrower this was just what I needed and I went down the pottery whenever possible - at first most of what I threw went back in the clay store but steadily, with the occasional hint from Michael, my throwing improved and by the time I left was producing lots of useful pots - in fact shortly before my departure I recorded that the bisque store contained about 50% pots made by me. Thanks to Michael's flexible generosity I was able to send home quite a lot, in return for the many I left behind, as well as a lot of local pots and cloth - but I wonder what happened to all those pots I left behind - many that I gave as thank you gifts and others that would have been sold. Do people sometimes wonder what tribe the mysterious PBD came from?
The atmosphere in the throwing room was often hilarious, especially when Ladi, the uninhibited, was around. My Hausa was very limited but her, usually outrageous jokes, were not hard to comprehend. She liked making ramekins with side handles thrown off the hump - 'just like little boys willies'.
The great round kiln was a wondrous revelation to me. Michael had very little to do with it, leaving packing and firing largely in the hands of Danjuma Kilim. Packing the saggers was a slow and careful business which was carried out meticulously with the help of one or two others, over many days. Firing usually started around 7.00 in the morning and proceeded slowly with small fires in the lower firebox. When steam could no longer be detected the fires would move up onto the hobs and firing proper could proceed. I liked to be on the night shift from 11.00 pm until 7.00 next morning. As I wrote to my mother:
After breakfast we would usually take turns to retire to the bian-guidah. On one occasion Michael went first, leaving me to finish my coffee. After a minute a loud shout, 'PETER - come quickly!!' then a loud crash and another shout, 'GO BACK, GO BACK'. Usually we left our shorts outside the privy as sign of occupation and Michael, settling himself on the seat, observed his belt (as he thought), start to move. With a shout, he realised it was snake - a hooded cobra that reared up as he leapt onto the seat. As the seat collapsed the snake fled and Michael, thinking I would run into it, bellowed for me to go back. We never found the creature so were more cautious than usual - one always had to take care in the bathroom with its splendid great Kwali pots full of cool water - the seepage attracted frogs and the frogs attracted our scaly friends. The clay-store at the Pottery, a deep damp pit, was also very attractive to snakes.
Michael, as I'd been warned, was something of a hypochondriac - often fussing about little things like a scratch or a stubbed toe - though it's true little things in the tropics can turn nasty. But in mid-October Michael did go down with a bout of pneumonia and was out of action for well over two weeks. He got very depressed and talked about being buried with the 'relatively inoffensive' words of the Church of England service. Told of the burial recently of another old-timer - who had a hunchback. There was a macabre scene as the carpenter had to cut a hole in the coffin to make him fit.
During his time off I had fun organising the design and re-building of one of the workshops that had collapsed due to heavy rain. We were also waiting for the Governor to come - he'd delayed his visit due to a broken nose playing polo. The plan was to open the kiln when he visited the Pottery - so it had been packed and ready to light like a loaded canon for several weeks. Work of grass cutting and white washing goes on to prepare for HE - 'the Gwobona' - just like a General Inspection in the Army. It was rather amusing that another prestigious visitor, the American Ambassador, Joseph Palmer II arrived at the same time as forty Gwari women, looking very wild with their shaven heads and herringbone scarification, each bearing a heavy load of clay from Abuchi.
A month later we headed south to Illorin, in Yoruba country, where Michael wanted to follow up the request from the local Native Authority that the local pottery industry should be 'brought up to the standard of Abuja' - but Illorin was the perfect illustration of the fact that native ware was perfect for its purpose. Indeed, pots from the town - great store jars and beautiful black bowls and casseroles - were exported all over Nigeria. However, Michael felt there was a possibility of starting a new industry in parallel - first introducing the wheel and eventually higher firing and glazes. Unfortunately the local authority under its rich Emir lost enthusiasm for the scheme when it became clear they would have to find some of the capital - initially only £200. I couldn't help noticing the fleet of cars they rode in were very new and shiny. Anyway we left the wheel and a couple of potters for a week - after a flurry of interest the women went back to doing what they knew. But Michael and I were astounded at the industry and skill shown by the local potters and amazed by the spectacular night firings. I got a good sequence of photos.
From Illorin we went to Iban, where Michael had friends in the university - then on to the capital, Lagos, where we entered a considerable social whirl including lunch with Her Majesty's representative, the British High Commissioner Viscount Head. This was partially due to the visit to Abuja, shortly before my arrival, of the Honourable Tessa Head, Sir Anthony's daughter and the Hon Polly Eccles. These beautiful young women had clearly swept Michael off his feet and he always had a soft spot for aristocratic patrons (in spite of his professed Marxism in the 1920s). 'Art like roses flourishes in rich soil' was one of his dictums. I remember as we dressed up as best we could (actually putting on long trousers) - Michael observed dusting off his shoes - 'so this is what socks are for!' Michael was brilliant at social occasions like this and he enthralled the large party with stories of his past - and the marvellous qualities of silica, especially cristobolite conversion.
Back in Abuja work proceeded on rebuilding the interior of the kiln. Slagged old red brick had to be chopped out and replaced with small china clay bricks - also new floor and chequer.
After an uneventful Christmas we set off again in Michael's Peugeot pickup with two other potters and head for Kaduna and on to Zaria where a former trainee is meant to be establishing a pottery and teaching. Ibrahim Zaria was at Abuja when the Stichburys were there and famously didn't get on together.
His wheel was incorrectly set up and the small kiln had never been fired successfully. So we made repairs and tried to improve the kiln.
Further to Sokoto where Sidi Abubakar (Sokoto) is also meant to be set up - but his wheel, too is in need of repair and clearly he isn't doing any work but still gets a handsome salary of £600 from the local authority. Michael talks to the Malam in charge of local industry and suggests that the wage should be steadily reduced to encourage Sidi to become productive.
As in Illorin, we are most impressed by the local pottery industry - here it is men who produce superb pots for local use - lots of photos. Collect clay for Sidi and cross into Niger Republic to buy rough French wine. Michael complains of diarrhoea and gets very ill - weather conditions are nasty with strong cold Harmatan wind - harsh silvery light hard on eyes and dust everywhere. Michael drives wrapped in blankets and swallowing aspirins (the local cure all) looking like death. He refuses to let me or anyone take over - exhaust keeps falling off - to Kadua for talks with bosses in Trade and Industry and British Council man re Ladi's forthcoming UK trip. This twelve day trip has really taken it out of Michael and he is very depressed by the failure of Ibrahim and Sidi and talks of leaving for good - stays in bed with 'flu.
Discussing violence another time, he said the only time he ever hit anyone was Kofi when they were together in Vume. He often spoke of his time in the Gold Coast and clearly deeply felt the double failures (as he perceived them) of Alajo and Vume Potteries. The suicide of HV Meyerowitz clearly still deeply affected Michael and when he was down a pessimism, perhaps arising from these experiences, affected his view of projects in Nigeria. Discussing a proposed Pottery at Jos Museum - Michael felt it was a hopeless idea - 'in the Gold Coast where there's ten times more natural drive it didn't work - God knows we put our hearts into it then.' In fact Jos Pottery was eventually built, thanks to the drive of Bernard Fagg, and, with Kofi as manager, became quite successful. I think Michael was too hard on himself as regards the Gold Coast where several of his apprentices had gone on to become established potters. The seeds he planted there did thrive but in unexpected ways.
Frightening events he told of in the Accra disturbances of 1948, when he was robbed and confronted by a machete-wielding rioter, were sadly echoed in a horrible occurrence at the end of February in Abuja. Waking, shouting, from troubled dreams Michael saw a dark figure making off into the night - the room where he slept was, as always, completely open. Once the lamp was lit he realised that his wallet with £70 of wage money had been taken from the pocket of his sleeping shorts. The thief must have rolled him over and sliced open the pocket with a knife or razor. Terrifying to think how that might have developed! The police were completely hopeless though Ladi Kwali's rogue of a husband was tried and let off. After the theft we got an old watchman to guard the area who could be heard intoning prayers throughout the night.
Technical troubles in the Pottery, the failure of the fledgling potteries, general ill health and now the theft brought Michael very low but not for long. Last minute plans and anticipation of the Exhibition openings in Europe followed by Ladi's tour and the prospect of reunion with his great friend Kofi buoyed him up. His mood frequently veered from depression to enthusiasm and future planning.
The frustration of working in Africa, the frequent discomfort and danger were usually balanced by the beauty of the land and people. Stepping back in time three thousand years to the iron-age when visiting a pottery village like Ushafa - or to the court of a medieval baron when soliciting support of a local Emir (his retainers prostrate on the floor with cries of 'Thank God - may you live forever' at his every utterance) - all this and the belief that he was actually achieving something worthwhile (the creation of art from the marriage of African sensibility and European/Oriental technology) kept Michael going. These attitudes could, of course, be derided as colonialist - indeed they were. But those were still colonial times. Anyway, by the time of his going away party on 5 April he was in splendid, optimistic form.
I stayed on for several more weeks and moved into town where I made many more friends. In spite of a bout of malaria I went on working in the pottery as well as making trips out to nearby villages to record potting techniques. Another hour could be filled with those stories - but not now.
My stay with Michael and the people of Abuja was one of the most vivid of my life; a wonderful education for which I have always been thankful.
A brief postscript to Abuja:
Michael Cardew giving a throwing lesson.
Bawa Ushafa slip decorating with Googong Bong looking on.
Kiln packing: Danfuma Kilim in the kiln with George Sempagala (student from Uganda) outside.
Michael Cardew buying red clay from the women of Abuchi.
Cutting up wood for the kiln.
Peter Dick helping to rebuild a damaged workshop.
Michael Cardew at Illorin inspecting clay pit a dangerous sort of bell-mining.
Michael Cardew in Shendam with the local chief. This was a typical scene when Michael was doing a tour round the North.
|Recollections of Abuja 1961 - 62 Issue 3|