Ladi Kwali was a Nigerian potter and ceramic artist who was known for her exceptional skills in the traditional pottery of the Gwari people of Nigeria.
Named after her village, Ladi Kwali was born in 1925 in the village of Kwali, the present-day Federal Capital Territory of Nigeria, Abuja where pottery was an indigenous occupation among women.
Ladi Kwali’s interest in pottery began when she was a young girl. She would learn the techniques of pottery making by observing and assisting her aunt and other women in her village make pots for domestic purpose using the traditional method of coiling.
Kwali’s craft included household wares such as large pots used as water jars, cooking pots, bowls, and flasks which were often sold out even before they were taken to the markets for display.
The wares were noted for their beauty of form and decoration and all her works have been associated with incised geometric and stylized figurative patterns, including scorpions, lizards, crocodiles, chameleons, snakes, birds, and fish.
Her skills caught the attention of Michael Cardew, a British potter who was working as a Pottery Officer in the Department of Commerce and Industry in the colonial Nigerian Government in 1951. Cardew had seen Ladi Kwali’s works on one of his courtesy visits to the home of the 6th Emir of Abuja, Alhaji Suleiman Barau.
Enthralled by her work, Cardew invited Kwali to work at the pottery training center in Abuja in 1954 making her the first female potter. While in the training centre, she learned other aspects of pottery including wheel throwing, glazing, kiln firing, production of saggars, and the use of slip, and eventually assuming the role of instructor at the centre.
By the time Cardew left his post in 1965, Kwali has brought in four additional women from Gwari to the Centre: Halima Audu, Lami Toto, Assibi Iddo, and Kande Ushafa. These women worked together in one of the workshops, which they called Dakin Gwari (the Gwari room), to hand-build large water pots.
Kwali’s work gained recognition and acclaim nationally and globally, and she became a master potter, known for her exquisite designs and techniques. Her work was characterized by its simplicity, elegance, and beauty. She used traditional methods of hand-building, coiling, and burnishing her pots, and decorated them with motifs and designs which were inspired by the Gwari culture.
Kwali’s talent and achievements earned her international recognition, and she traveled to several countries to showcase her work. Her pots were featured in international exhibitions of Abuja pottery in 1958, 1959, and 1962, organised by Cardew.
In 1961, Kwali gave demonstrations at the Royal College, Farnham, and Wenford Bridge in Great Britain. She also gave demonstrations in France and Germany over this period. In 1972, she toured America with Cardew. Her work was shown to great acclaim in London at the Berkeley Galleries. The Google Doodle for 16 March 2022 was also in honor of Kwali.
The pioneer potter also received numerous awards and honours in Nigeria including MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in 1963 and OON (Officer of the Order of the Niger) in 1981.
Ladi Kwali died in 1984 at the age of 59, but her legacy lives on. She was immortalized after her death and has been remembered as one of Nigeria’s foremost ceramic artists, a master potter, and a pioneer in the field of African ceramics.
The Sheraton Hotel houses the Ladi Kwali Convention Center, which is one of the largest conference facilities in Abuja, consisting of ten meeting rooms and four ballrooms; Ladi Kwali’s picture appears at the back of the Nigerian N20 Naira note, pegging her as the first and only woman to ever appear on a Nigerian currency. Also, the Abuja Pottery Centre was renamed the Ladi Kwali Pottery in the early 80s.
Ladi Kwali’s work continues to inspire young artists and potters in Nigeria and beyond, and her influence on the development of contemporary African ceramics cannot be overstated.