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Interrogating the Human Figure in Bridging the Ceramic-Sculpture Divide: Practice in Nigeria

Tonie Okpe



The focus on the human figure has always been the central preoccupation of sculptors working in a diversity of materials (including clay), and contemporary Nigerian art is no exception. However, the broadening scope of hand-built ceramic craft in Nigeria includes figurative work to a greater extent now than at any time in the past. This paper interrogates the figurative ceramic works of the young Nigerian artist Ozioma Onuzulike, who, by using mixed media, breaks away from more traditional constructs of ceramic craft.


artists . . . have moved away from the constraints of earlier, more traditional, influences and have sought to express themselves in new and innovative ways . . . this does not mean that the work is essentially no longer within the context of ceramics. Instead it shows an openness to finding new ways to develop ideas that push boundaries forward or to establish fresh solutions to old problems.1

The figure in Nigerian art, particularly in sculpture, has been, and is still, central to the study of form and content, whether in formal (as in universities, polytechnics, and colleges of education where art courses are offered) or non-formal art training institutions or experimental workshops (such as the Abayomi Barber, Oshogbo, and several individual artists’ studios and workshops). The early Nok terracotta, for instance, demonstrates that the figure in art in Nigeria is not the exclusive preserve of sculpture or painting but is also part of the ceramic craft, despite the rich legacies and continuity and constant change occurring in traditional pottery, which in the 1950s was boosted by the immense contribution of the potter Michael Cardew at his Suleja base.


The strict tradition of practice, of sculpture for sculptors and pottery for ceramicists, began to decline considerably in the late 1970s as sculptors began experimenting with ceramic methods of hand-built forms while their counterparts took an interest in producing figurative work outside of the pure dictates of sculpture. Ozioma’s work in terms of style and diversity of theme is of social relevance to Nigeria and the world.

Bridging the divide

The adventure of the movement away from the potter’s wheel in contemporary ceramic practice in Nigeria did not occur solely in the 1970s. There are new and successful attempts at experimentation outside of the batches of domestic ware that are the signature of traditional pottery. It is therefore important to mention outstanding ceramic artists such as Abbas Ahuwan, Christ Echeta, and Tony Umunna, who are working outside of pottery’s rooted tradition of mere utilitarian objects. Reuben Ugbine’s clay figurines and the early experimental works of sculptor El Anatsui show that they are in the forefront of locating their practice within the context of ceramic sculpture – their practice seems to blur the strict distinction between sculpture and ceramics and could be described as purely three-dimensional sculptural forms.

The constant experimentation and consequent further development of contemporary ceramic art in Nigeria, which now interrogates sculpture, continues alongside the production of traditional pottery typified by utilitarian wares produced, and indeed needed, purely for domestic use in daily life in rural areas. Traditional handcrafted pottery rooted in the functional therefore seems to provide the impetus to ‘spring-board’ artists in their search for new intricacies in the manipulation of the primary material of clay to achieve heightened aesthetic appeal and further interpretations.

El Anatsui, sculptor and professor of sculpture at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, located his forms within the context of ceramics in both material and method in his work during the 1970s, producing ceramic sculptures in the series he titled ‘Broken Pots: Chambers of Memory’, which focused on decay, break-up, and dilapidation, as well as other near anthropomorphic vessels akin to pots mainly used for divination in Africa. The works in the Broken Pots series look unfinished because they do not exhibit the look of traditional ceramic vessels, which are usually finely rounded up, glazed, and ready for household use. Rather, their visible openness as hollows seems to suggest readiness for herbal inhabitation similar to theoverused and partly broken pots of traditional African herbal medicine. El personally sees his work conveying a message of ‘despondence, despair, bewilderment and frustration’. His Chambers of Memory – a fragmented portrait in manganese body (ordinary modelling clay mixed with manganese) – is obviously derived from the Nok culture both in structure and in the rendition of facial features, and El sees the Nok terracotta as ‘embodying some of the finest examples of authentic clay language’.


Since the 1970s Abbas Ahuwan, ceramicist and associate professor of ceramics at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, has also consistently produced hand-built forms that fit neatly into a strong synthesis of satisfying challenges of both sculpture and pottery. He seems to be using a shared vocabulary as if he were an unintentional sculptor. His works freely exhibit an intent to experiment while satisfying an inherent aesthetic impulse. The Crown, for instance, clearly shows an attempt to produce quasi-traditional forms akin to free-standing sculptures. The same is true of the series Kings and Queens.

The forms of Chris Echeta, ceramicist and lecturer at the Cross River State University, Calabar, are mainly produced from clay slab in a seemingly ceramic sculpture tradition. The vessel is a predominant feature of his works. His piece Untitled presents a facial form on a vessel. The figurines of Reuben Ugbine, mainly untitled, are sculptures of direct modelling in clay, retaining the bisque colouring of kiln firing. Some of his works, though bisque fired, are eventually coloured but in a less painterly fashion.

Ozioma Onuzulike is currently engaged in using inexpensive materials in multi-media (clay and wood, clay and grass, clay and plastic strings, clay and metal, etc.). The objectification of contexts and content in ceramic sculpture is the main thrust of this presentation. Ozioma was born at Achi in Enugu state, Nigeria, in 1972. He studied ceramics at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, for the degrees of BA and MFA, graduating in 1996 and 2001 respectively, and winning several prizes at graduation. Ozioma is currently on the staff of the department of fine and applied art at his alma mater. A new artist on the Nigerian art scene, he is gradually – through a series of exhibitions which border on conceptual art – locating himself within the ceramic sculpture/installation construct in search of a personal vocabulary of expression.

The philosophy behind Ozioma’s works

The dehumanization of the human being through global events of armed conflict, natural disasters, genocide, etc, forms the pivot through which Ozioma’s works swing, working mainly in clay and mixed media in series making social commentaries. Even in the mixed media experimentation there is a diversity of composition of figurines in terms of number and positioning within the group, and it is close to conceptual art in terms of material, temporality, and specificity of siting. His global subject matter includes works such as Tsunami Yam Bodies, Casualties, Refugees, and Genocide. Ozioma discusses the influences that have shaped his current studio practice and relates his titles to the turmoil around the world and to the ceramic processes of firing, burning and roasting. ‘However I still see these as the beginning of my exploration of ceramics without borders.’


For instance, in ‘Earth to Art’, his solo exhibition of ceramics and mixed-media sculptures in 2000, the artist explored a variety of abstracted clay forms in a composition of multiple figures with stunted legs and small heads on finely laid out metal supports (Genocide). In his 2003 exhibition ‘Casualties’ he says: ‘for the casualties project, I used hundreds of miniature terracotta figures along with locally sourced materials’ to produce works in which most, if not all, of the figures appeared dehumanized and lifeless. The subject matter of the entire collection of works for this exhibition reflected the day-to-day experiences of Nigerian social, environmental, and political life, with titles such as No Water (for Obiora Udechukwu), Democratic Question, The Politicians are Back, National Cake, From the Woods, and Burnt Forest I.

Ozioma frequently appropriates a wide diversity of materials to use as both components and supports for his ceramic sculptures as can be seen in Burial Arrangement and Casualties I and II, in which, although clay is dominant, cassava colanders, chicken mess, gravel, sieves, spent cans, stones, iron slag, and acrylics are all incorporated in the pieces.

The overall surface appearance of Ozioma’s figures is achieved by various techniques. He uses acrylic sparingly, but mainly uses open firing of bisque to achieve some carbonizing effect in which uneven shades dominate the textural quality of surfaces. This is achieved by mixing the clay with sawdust before modelling.


The intent of this work is to celebrate the coexistence of ‘clay workers’ in the work of achieving a vibrant creative fulfilment of the theory and practice of ceramic sculpture in Nigeria.


Anatsui, E., ‘Sankofa: Go Back an’ Pick’, Third Text, Oxfordshire, Carfax Publishing Co., 1993.

Cardew, M., Pioneer Pottery, London, Longman Group, 1973.

Counts, C., Pottery Workshop, New York, Collier Books, 1973.

Dormer, P., The New Ceramics: Trends and Traditions, London, Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1994.

Elsen, A., Origins of Modern Sculpture: Pioneers and Premises, New York, George Braziller, 1974

Gregory, I., Sculptural Ceramics, London, A&C Black, 1992.

Meyer, F., Sculpture in Ceramics, New York, Watson-Gruphill, 1971.

Noguchi, I., A Sculptor’s World, London, Thames and Hudson, 1967.

Onuzulike, O., Earth to Art, Bona Gallery Enugu – Nigeria, 2000.

Onuzulike, O., ‘Ceramics Without Borders’, in Ceramic Technical, no. 18, Australia, 2004.

‘Portfolio: Broken Pots’, CPAN: Journal of Ceramics, Craft Potters’ Association of Nigeria, Nsukka, 2004.

Read, H., Modern Sculpture: a Concise History, London, Thames and Hudson, 1994.

Williams, D., ‘A Revival of Terra-Cotta at Ibadan’, Nigeria Magazine, no. 88, Department of Culture, Federal Ministry of Social Development, Youth and Culture, Lagos, 1996.



  1. Ian Gregory, Sculptural Ceramics, London, A&C Black, 1992, p.7. back to text

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Interrogating the Human Figure • Issue 8