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My Hands in Clay and Other Media: The 'CASUALTIES' Project

Ozioma Onuzulike
(Nigeria), highly commended, Open Competition


Despite its brevity, we felt this entry conveyed a very real sense of what it might be like to make ceramics in contemporary Nigeria and were impressed by the highly moving section subtitled 'Casualties Idiom' with its lists of horrifying practices. It is a percussive, at moments frantic, piece of writing that gathers in pace, rises to a crescendo and mutates into poetry.

Jo Dahn


Up until recently, the clay medium has not been taken very 'seriously' within the mainstream art historical and critical circuit. This is perhaps because clay appears to be a 'traditional' medium that has been tagged with the limiting badge of 'utility'. Works in clay have for so long suffered critical invisibility because of the high academic partition walls by which they have been marginalized as 'craft' or 'applied art' or 'low art'.

For me, however, I insist that clay holds a natural sensibility, and persuasive power, capable of activating the creative idioms inherent in other materials or media found around my immediate Nsukka environment. So, I have sought to tap into the idioms and metaphors locked into clay and its working processes, as well as those locked into a range of other materials around me. I have brought these together for the sake of expanding the horsepower of clay for my 'CASUALTIES' project, spanning 2001 - 2005.

CASUALTIES: Why 'Casualties'?

My country Nigeria fought a devastating civil war which ended just two years before I was born in 1972. While growing up under my father (a veteran Biafran military police officer) and my mother, who took active part in the Oso agha (literally, 'war race' or 'running from war') episode of the 1967-70 era, I was first exposed to the horrors of war through tales told by them. My parents would often shake their heads in pain and sob bitterly at the thought of close friends and family members who were 'eaten' by the avoidable war. Particularly, my mother's recitation of the dirges usually sung by hungry and betrayed Biafran soldiers during the war, often in honour of their slain colleagues, drew tears to her eyes. And mine too. These stories have eventually found their way back to my pet studio project...

I grew up worried over how men can inflict so much pain on fellow men. I read about armed conflicts in books, journals and magazines. I saw the horrors of war on the television. I was shocked by the brutal conflicts and horrors going on around the world - Angola, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Palestine, Cote d' Ivoire, the Congo, Pakistan, India, Rwanda... terrorist bombing in different parts of the world is already a recurring decimal!

Beyond physical wars and terrorism, I also began to see the idea of 'casualties' in new light. For instance, the bad roads across Africa generate lots of uncounted casualties on daily basis. Victims or casualties usually end up in mass graves or some ill-equipped orthopedic hospitals. There are also lots of political casualties - those who are rigged out of elections or eliminated entirely by assassination. I also see African leaders causing the masses of Africa to fall victim of hunger, starvation, disease and death through bad economic policies, the looting of the communal treasury and other forms of corruption.

These are the issues being raised and interrogated by the works in my 'CASUALTIES' project. They include titles such as Refugees I, Genocide, Suyascape, Victim, Burial Arrangements, Calendar II: Explosives Market, Ejigbo/Oke Afa Canal Disaster, Politician I (Fig.1) , Politician II, Mass Burial I (Fig.2) and Orthopedic Hospital II (Fig.3) . They draw upon the long list of metaphors identified below for their signification.

Figure 9. Two pages from sketchbook

Figure 1

Politician 1, 1998,
earthenware with painted engobes,
38 x 25 x 9cm


Figure 2

Mass Burial I, 2005,
terracotta, variable installation

Figure 2. Mass Burial I

Figure 3. Orthopaedic Hospital II

Figure 3

Orthopaedic Hospital II, 2005,
smoked stoneware and glass


The 'Casualties' Idiom

For me, every technical gesture in the ceramics studio relates directly to the causes and effects of 'casualties'. In such works as Politician I, Politician II, Mass Burial I and Orthopedic Hospital II, I make direct and indirect references to metaphors relating to such clay winning, working and firing processes such as hammering, kneading, wedging, pinching, crushing, slaking, stabbing, cutting, mixing, loading, bundling, scourging, scorching, crumpling, rupturing, locking, burning, roasting, ramming, choking...

When in such works as Refugees I (Fig.4) and Burial Arrangements (Fig.5) you find pinched terracotta figures conjoined with household garri and akpu colanders, cassava graters and gravel sieves crafted by local tinkers from off-cuts of aluminum roofing sheets, then ruminate over elimination, relocation, demarcation, division, separation, sorting, distancing, scourging, isolation, extermination, exclusion, marginalization, screening, besieging, amputation, hammering, crushing, maiming, slashing, hacking, disfiguring, perforating, shooting, terrorizing, sawing, handicapping, harassing, horrifying, emasculating, demobilizing, paralyzing, damaging, violating, afflicting, annihilating, assaulting, destroying, battling, bombarding, bastardizing, battering, beating, flogging, slapping, kicking, bruising, wounding, beheading, blowing, exploding, blistering, buffeting, breaking, bulldozing, butchering, splitting, squeezing...

Figure 4

Refugees 1, 2003,
terracotta figures, gravel sieves, spent cans and metal slag, 35 x 78 x 13cm

Figure 4. Refugees 1

Figure 5. Burial Arrangements

Figure 5

Burial Arrangements, 2003,
terracotta, cassava sieves, collage, chicken mesh, 120 x 91 x 26cm


When, as in Suyascape (Fig.6) and Ejigbo/Oke Afa Canal Disaster, I pass nails and rods through slabs of clay before they dry and are fired, I strive to raise questions relating to nailing, screwing, killing, shooting, collision, raping, indicting, violating...

Figure 6. Suyascape

Figure 6

Suyascape, 2003,
selectively smoked terracotta/metal and wood,
143 x 127 x 89cm


When, as in Refugees II, you find the pinched out figures installed on chicken mesh used widely in poultry farms and market stalls, then think deeply about separation, partitioning, caging, capturing, monitoring, spying, demarcating, restricting, blockading, restraining, excluding, hindering, handcuffing, hijacking, clamping, arraigning, barring... When I make the fleeing refugee figures carry loads of iron slag sourced from old iron-smelting sites at Nsukka I am simply drawing attention to exploitation, abandonment, trampling, rejection, littering, bloodletting... When I tie the figures with the cobbler's twine and wire I am drawing attention to binding, gathering, bandaging, healing, rehabilitating...


I have looked through
the sharp eyes
of cassava graters and nails;
the bulging eyes of hammered cans;
the magnifying lenses of garri colanders;
gravel sieves, chicken mesh, garri graters...
I have looked through
the spy holes
of the potters' furnace
I have seen casualties
casualties, casualties


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Open Competition Sponsored by ICRC

Introduction to the 'Speak For Yourself' project

Jo Dahn

Ist Prize
A Collection of Small Miseries: Studio Philosophy and Project Research

Carole Hanson Epp (Canada)

2nd Prize
My Father's Razor

Sharon Blakey (UK)

Highly commended
Mimics of Everyday Life

Edith Garcia (UK based but originally USA)

Highly commended
My Hands in Clay and Other Media: The 'CASUALTIES' Project

Ozioma Onuzulike (Nigeria)

UK Student Competition, Prizes awarded by the HEAD Trust

Ist Prize
A Student's Reflection on Making Pots for Use

Olivia Horley

Joint 2nd Prize
Using Ceramics in a Mixed Media Context

Janet Roome

Joint 2nd Prize
Conservational Intervention

Yesung Kim

Reviews by:

Linda Sandino
(book review)

Garth Clark
(book review)

Richard D. Mohr
(reply to Garth Clark's review)

Wilma Cruise
(exhibition review)

Ron Wheeler
(obituary of Sid Tustin)

My Hands in Clay and Other Media • Issue 7   Interpreting Ceramics