Magdalene Odundo review – quietly devastating challenge in an English country house

Standing proudly in the center of a room of 18th- and 19th-century English portrait paintings in Houghton Hall is a polished terracotta vessel. Magdalene Odundo’s work amazes with its simplicity. While the former residents of the Palladian mansion depicted in the paintings stare haughtily down, Odundo’s Untitled (2024) – a self-portrait, but also a portrait of humanity – radiates a different kind of power. The form reflects an ancient human history and artistry, utilizing the ancient terra sigillata technique, in which the shapes are not glazed, but covered with a slip made of diluted clay. The shape of the ship also represents a necessity, to carry and transport, that continues to exist. A single, protruding knob in the side of the piece – reminiscent of a nose or a nipple, an Odundo signature – anthropomorphizes the ceramic object. But it’s what’s inside that makes it complete – the part we can’t see.

Odundo has been concerned with the global history of seeing and our relationship with objects for more than forty years, using ceramics and glass to refer to human bodies. She is the first black artist and the first woman to be exhibited at Houghton Hall, and her approach is significant. Rather than rival the opulent, Italianate-style interiors of the State Apartments, or intervene in their history, she has taken a different approach, rarely seen in these types of contemporary exhibitions in heritage houses; she has tried to blend in, to assimilate her own history with the history so impeccably preserved here.

Sometimes she glides seamlessly into the spaces. A white clay tea set thrown on wheels, with delicate leaf curls inspired by Victorian garden utensils, sits modestly on a console in the white drawing room. If you weren’t looking for it, you wouldn’t know it hadn’t always been there – yet Odundo created the piece to commemorate the millennium in 2000. On a lacquered chest of drawers next to the bedside table next to William Kent’s shell bed in the green velvet bedroom, Odundo has replaced one of a pair of cranes with a colorful crane from her own archive – Untitled, (1995). The bird is a powerful symbol for the bedroom because they are monogamous for life. It is also a cosmopolitan bird; they are found on most continents of the world, and are common in East Africa, where Odundo grew up.

Elsewhere, in the austere, functional stone hall designed by Colen Campbell, Odundo has installed two vessels from her Kigango series, created in tribute to the carved wooden columns of the Mijikenda people of Kenya. They inhabit two alcoves originally intended to house life-size figurative sculptures on either side of the hall, but this aspect of the design was never completed. Quietly, subtly, but with a penetrating sense of purpose, Odundo claims that space. Meanwhile, a large group of anthropomorphic vessels gathers in the center of the room, some iridescent, glossy black tones (achieved through a low-oxygen firing process and the addition of wood chips to create smoke) and earthy, warm orange tones (polished and fired in a gas kiln ). They suggest what kinds of bodies passed through this space – and what kinds of bodies may have been and still are absent.

In other rooms it is more difficult to glide so easily through the corridors of wealth and power – as a visitor, or as a contemporary work of art. The unsavory aspects of a place like Houghton Hall – built on land inherited by the first Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, thanks in part to profits from the sale of shares in the South Sea Company – come to the surface in the marble drawing room. It is left to Odundo to say through an astonishing new work what many may already be feeling as they walk through Houghton Hall.

A pair of metal pineapples once stood in the center of the dining table – a place where elaborate parties would once have taken place. A version of the pineapple’s history is also depicted here in a painting by Danckerts, in which the royal gardener Charles II presents what he claims to be the first fruit grown in Britain. In the 18th century, pineapples were a symbol of the exotic, a sign of luxury and wealth, which was brought to the country as a result of colonialism. “In Kenya we kicked them like footballs,” Odundo jokes.

In the middle of this now empty table, surrounded by portraits of imperious white men, she has introduced another topic of conversation about colonialism and slavery. Odundo’s first ever narrative piece – the context clearly required it – is very different from her usually abstract shapes and surfaces. Created during a year-long collaboration with Wedgwood, using Jasperware and historic molds from the Wedgwood collection, the new piece resembles a towering, tiered wedding cake. As you get closer, the festive tenor changes quickly. At its base are images of handcuffs, shackles and muzzles, used to brutally dehumanize and enslave; a second layer reproduces the drawing of black figures on the Brookes ship, published in 1788 – an image that stimulated the abolitionist movement. A further layer is based on news footage of protests against tax increases in Nairobi in 2023. Also depicted are portraits of Josiah Wedgwood, an abolitionist and campaigner who designed the anti-slavery medallion, and Olaudah Equiano, a formerly enslaved man who became an influential became a figure. in the abolitionist movement, which corresponded with Wedgwood.

Yet the piece speaks silently to a silent room full of historical portraits and silent visitors held behind a rope – so as not to disturb history. This work is also about distance, about the gap between recognition and recovery, knowing and understanding. It questions ideas about inheritance and power, and the politics of art patronage that are intertwined with them. The title of the work (taken from WB Yeats’ poem about injustice and progress, The Second Coming) is “the falcon cannot hear the falconer”. At the very top stands a Kenyan female protester, small but triumphant, her hand raised in a gesture of power and defiance. Odundo himself perhaps – or any survivor of the relentless cycles of violence and brutality.

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