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There are Many Different Ideas I Wanted to Explore - in Conversation with Bisila Noha

On the North/South Divide

When it comes to the art world, the way we analyse and see art is influenced by a North/South divide.  In the North, whatever we see that comes from there is great and has value and whatever comes from the south – Africa – we see as primitive and exotic. We don’t see it with the same gaze. We are full of prejudice. Behind all that are still so many colonialist, imperialist and racist views. And, as we see with what’s happening in the US, these still prevail and they are everywhere. This is how the world is being understood and it applies to us, of course.

As an example, I don’t know if any of you have been to the ceramic room at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which is an amazing collection of pots. It’s a beautiful journey that goes from China and Japan, through the silk route, through Persia, the Mediterranean and Britain and then, at the end of this journey, in the corner, there’s perhaps about 20 pots there from Nigeria. They’re only there because this man, this white man, Michael Cardew was sent during the colonisation to Nigeria, to teach African potters how to do pottery. And this is why we’ve got a lack of representation of such a rich culture of pottery. There’s also nothing from South America. These are all the ideas I wanted to bring together with my pottery, along with my own identity.

To do so I have mixed clays, the clays my parents brought me (from Baney) and then I mixed stoneware and porcelain. Porcelain is kind of like gold in the pottery world. It’s this thing that, since it was discovered, everybody has become obsessed with it, because it’s so white, so pure. It’s not contaminated by any other minerals. Since it started coming from China and Japan to Europe, the developed innovation in so many European countries was driven by the desire to replicate porcelain. I really wanted to mix porcelain with Baney clay, African clay from the south and also representing women, in this case, together.

On Women, Ceramics and Art

I call it womb vessel because clay is used in so many cosmologies and religions as a metaphor of the creator of life. God got some clay and made a figure and blew life into the nostrils. I call it womb because to me the womb is the epitome of life.

Going into pottery, there’s this never-ending question of is pottery art or craft. In the art world, I think that pottery is still belittled somehow, unless there’s this artist who decides to do pottery. So, for instance, Picasso, this white male who is well renowned and decides to do pots. And if there’s a potter from a village or a small place, or a potter generally, it’s not really considered art. And maybe, I just wonder, if one of the reasons behind that is that pottery, like many crafts, has traditionally been a female practice. It’s been women since the beginning making pots in their homes in groups, passing on the knowledge, generation after generation and making things for the house, sometimes for buildings. The moment the wheel is invented and then men take over, then the wheel is going to represent all that is innovative, technology and development. Men are going to represent with the wheel what is good and what is quality, while women remain in the home and that is not going to be valuable.

On Mixing Clays (and Cultures)

This mix is very homogeneous. You cannot see where one clay begins and another one ends. I made it by refining a lot. The result…. To me this is a beautiful metaphor of how in the North we approach immigration. How we say yes, you can come, but you’re going to have to behave by our rules, lose your own identity. For example, the veil, the debate around the veil in France or Spain. We need to make immigration palatable for us so that we can actually process it and the mix is peaceful, as in this case.

Whereas if you look at these two, I didn’t refine the Baney clay that much. And then also when I mixed them, I mixed them a lot. The result is you can really see the Baney clay. It’s very present. It makes a statement. It has its identity. It’s saying, ‘I’m here.’ Throwing with these is more difficult, it has more cracks.  I was trying to make a grading of the colours, so the mixtures between the colours was complicated, but it just kind of collapsed. It was terrible.  Even in the studio we were trying to fix it but it was impossible. So this is another allegory of when there is a lot of tensions. When the south is making a statement of its being, the mix is trickier. It also happens to women, for that matter, in the sense that we have been taught to be obedient and quiet and not have a voice and the moments throughout history when women have wanted to claim their rights and have stood up and been bold and assertive with how to make lassitude, there’s been a problem with patriarchy. And now we don’t like women that much. I like the fact that the pieces themselves can reflect on this idea somehow.

This one (right) is 50% Baney Clay. It is the most extreme mixture, and because the other 50% is porcelain, it has been fired to a higher temperature, to 1260C. The surface is full of blisters because the Baney Clay has a lot of iron and iron at that temperature is very volatile or nervous and wants to leave the surface, so it creates this bloating.

Click here to view the full video of Bisila’s talk and Q&A with Claire Pearce, from Thrown Gallery (password: Bisila).

For more info on the Gatherers exhibition and Bisila’s work, visit the Gatherers site here.