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Feature Article

Michael Cardew 1901-1980
Nigerian Field Vol 66 Pt.2 Oct 2001 - Michael Cardew and the Abuja Potters by Liz Moloney

The following article is courtesy of the Nigerian Field Society and the author Liz Moloney. © Nigerian Field Society. Photos by Doig Simmonds ©1959. Donations may be made to the society via UK Vice President, Joyce Lowe, email unitedkingdominfo@nigerianfield.org.


Michael Cardew

The Ladi Kwali Pottery in Suleija is 54 years old this year. It has not been a working pottery as long as that, it is true; but it was in August 1951 that the English studio potter, Michael Cardew, recruited by the Nigerian colonial Government in 1950 as pottery Officer, moved up from Lagos to the small town then called Abuja and started, with a small team of local workmen to build the new Pottery Training Centre. Ladi Kwali was not to join the trainees there until the end of 1954, but Cardew had already been excited by her beautiful pots in the village of Kwali and hoped to persuade her to come and work with him. Looked at from the vantage point of 2001, for the colonial government to start busying itself about the “improvement” of the pottery techniques of Nigeria it was odd thing to happen, considering that Nigerian pots, made according to the traditional method practiced for centuries, were are magnificent already. The decision to do this, however, resulted in the potters who made then. Michael Cardew was one of the best publicist ever for West Africa`s traditional potters even as he worked to create a new network of rural Potteries using techniques foreign to the region.

He went to Nigeria when he was 49, not because he had an urge to change Nigerian pottery but because he desperately wanted to get back to west Africa where he had unfinished business after 5 years spent in Ghana ( then Gold Coast ) 1943-1948. He was deeply attached to a young potter there, Clement Kofi Athey, who was running the pottery at Vume they had set up together, but had had to return to England after re-current ill-health and he felt he owed it to Kofi not to allow that project to fail. From Nigeria he thought he could keep in touch, and visit during his leave, for the sake of his obsession with Africa he left behind him once again his pottery at Wenford bridge in Cornwall ( rented out), his wife (teaching in London), three young sons ( still at school) and his reputation as an outstanding studio potter ( known to few, even among the British, in Nigeria ). Of course, Nigeria took him over and altered his motive.
He did a preliminary tour of the Western region, and quickly reported to the department of commerce and industries that some of their ideas needed modification, he could hardly do himself out a job by rejecting them altogether, given his desire to be in West Africa and work with West African Potters.

Ladi Kwali

Ladi Kwali making pots on a wheel, ca 1959

The Pottery The Pottery, Abuja c 1959, left woodstove, right kiln

In fact the job description he had been given was not about changing traditional pottery but about setting up a sort of inter mediate technology project, a rural industry using the wheel, glazes and high-firing in the European studio pottery tradition. It was evidently prompted by the perceived need for a home-grown industry to supply the middle-class Nigerian demand for a glazed tableware suitable for European-style meals and hot drinks, at that time already supplied by factory-produced imports.

Cardew`s first report of July 1950 states that a wholesale transformation of the Nigerian native pottery industry is considered to be neither practicable or desirable`, although he said this idea had been widely entertained by non-technical observers. This native industry had ‘technical advantages peculiar to it, which the others do not possess’, was ‘distinguished by simplicity and nobility in shape and decoration’, remarkably cheap to produce, and ‘in a healthy state and not likely to suffer from the competition of locally-produced glazed wares.’ He pointed out that glazing and high-firing to make the proposed table ware non-porous ‘ would largely lose one of the great virtues of the native pottery - tolerance of the thermal shock.’ He felt able to support the argument for a home industry to run parallel to the local village pottery, producing pots for a modern middle- class westernized life style. he proposed small ‘experimental stations’ with small numbers of trainees, rather than a central school of ceramics.

This report resulted in his promotion to senior pottery Officer, and for the next two years he was involve in the setting up of pottery at Okigwe and Ado-Ekiti with other British pottery Officers, V A Gregory and S Atkins. But the decision about where to put the northern region pottery training Centrex turned out to be the crucial one for Cardew, and for a number of Nigerians whose lives were changed by it.

The notes, illustrated by sketches, for his second report in early 1951, following a tour of Nigeria`s Northern Region in November and December 1950, show his excitement as he discovered its varied pottery; he especially admired the pots made by women in the Abuja area. He was able, as a colonial Officer, to call upon an impressive network of existing knowledge to help him. Local potters, district heads, administrators, miners, Geologists Educationists Missionaries - all sorts of people knew about the soil structure, the transport systems, the fuel, the traditions and other factors he had to consider in deciding how to proceed, and in particular, where to site the Pottery Training Center. He was allowed to use the Furnaces of the Amalgamated Tin mines of Jos to test clay samples. It was a unique support system for a researcher into traditional pottery as well as prospective local potter.

‘We decided ABUJA after all!’ he wrote in his note after a meeting in Kastina with Stanhope (Sam) White of the department of Commerce and Industries, Kaduna, in April 1951. ‘Good and central for N.Nigeria, Wonderful local pots, a nice town where trainees can live, Hausas would not be out of place there, and above all, a 1st rate Emir – yes, hurray !!!’ The ‘after all’ meant ‘in spite of Abuja’s not being on the railway’, but as it was to be a training center and not a commercial production Center, this was decided not to be crucial. Abuja was the place for ‘inspiration’, he said, and that would made for good pots.

From late August 1951 he supervised the building of the pottery at Abuja, locally thatched buildings; (the present ones were built in 1973 ) and started selecting trainees. Who were these to be? An aspect of the European-style pottery which contrasted with African pottery was the fact that the trainees were expected to be men, where as most of Nigerian potters were women. Hausa land was the big exception, although within northern Nigerian there were also non-Hausa communities with women potters. The Abuja emirate was Hausa, that its population was overwhelmingly Gwari and included outstanding Gwari women potters. Cardew, in his 1950 report, said he envisaged the new techniques being mainly to men with only a ‘Small fringe’ of women potters.

This could be for a numbers of reasons, some referred to elsewhere in Cardew’s writings such as the fact that in the traditional industries, potting was,in parts, the whole way of life, not something as a western industrialized society and regarded as a career. Men would found it easier to train and join a paid work- force, because they were less encumbered by family commitments. This view may be regarded as reflecting British prejudices and practices and distorting African Society structure, as happened in the case of Agricultural and other training. Or you could see it as a realistic appraisal, since Cardew had already suggested that the traditional, mainly women, potters would not adversely affected by a new small-scale industry and African societies, like British once at the time also tended to separate men’s and women’s work. He had himself always worked with other men in both England and the Gold Coast, except when apprenticed with Bernard Leach, and would probably be inclined to prefer this.

As it later turned out, the Abuja Pottery Training Centre`s star potter ( Cardew would have hated the description of any potter as a star, but that was exactly what she became on overseas tour ) was a woman, Ladi Kwali, whose basic skill and genius, he always freely acknowledged, were fully developed before she joined him. But there were always more men than women working with Cardew. It is odd in a way that he went along with the argument for a separate work force outside the old social structures, given that he always professed a desire to eliminate the distinction between one’s working life and everything else, and to achieve an undivided life as had been done in pre-industrial England. But he had to work within a framework of an administration struggling to show that it was modernizing the northern region of Nigeria. I suspect that this masculine bias involve all sorts of different reasons.

So the earliest trainees were Hausa men, Audu and Gwadabe from Kano, Closely followed by men from other regions with an increasing number of local potters. Among the first to start were Okoro Ike from the south-east, Tankol Ashada Mohammed and Bawai Ushafa. Audu Mugu and Sidi came down from Sokoto. Later came Bako Maigari, Audu (Wahala) and Musa (Nawa) Nok in 1956, Mohammed Inuwa, Hassan Lapai and Usman Zukoko in 1957, Ibrahim Muhtari Zaria and Peter Bute Kuna Gboko in 1957, Gugong Bong, Bala Yawa and Abu Karo in 1958 . Kofi Athey, though continuing to run the Vume pottery in Ghana, worked at Abuja for several stints of a few months before coming to Nigeria to run the new Jos pottery in 1963. The kiln gang, who remained throughout Cardew`s time and later, were Danjuma Kilin, Husseine, Gwari and Na`anabi.

However quite early on, Cardew`s preference for male trainees was overridden by his respect for superb skill and his wish to work with people endowed within. In the Abuja area, these were women. He had wanted to bring Ladi Kwali into the training Centrex from the beginning, and finally, after negotiations with her and with the local authorities, she arrived in December 1954.She learned to throw ordinary tableware and smaller pots for practical use, but she also continued to hand-build pots, which were then controversially glazed and high-fired. Cardew was well aware of the drawbacks of this procedure in terms of weight and utility. They were much less breakable than traditional pots though, and they became Collector`s treasures, now worth huge sums at auction which neither Cardew nor Ladi herself could ever have envisaged.

Cardew`s international reputation played a key role in putting Abuja potters on the international ceramic world map. He had previously exhibited at the Berkeley Gallery in London, and was able to arrange for Abuja exhibitions there in 1958 and 1959, which increased his own fame and made Ladi Kwali in particular a name in the pottery world. Her success opened the door to other women potters: Halima Audu from Ido, came in 1959, and made some superb pots (in Britain, her work can be seen in the Milner-White collection at York City Art Gallery.) She died tragically young only two years later. Asibe Ido and Lami Toto arrived in 1963, followed by Kande Ushafa. At the time of Cardew`s departure in 1965, the four surviving women along with six men - Tanko Ashada, Gugong Bond, Peter Gboko, Abu Karol, Ibrahim Muhtari and Bawa Ushafa, plus Danjuma Landam, Assistant pottery Officer, were still at the Abuja Pottery training center. The Kano and Sokoto Potters had gone back to their home towns, and Okoro had gone to modern ceramics in Umuahia.

Large pots

Above - Ladi Kawli's pots being fired in the traditional way

Some of these potters and no doubt others who never left there villages, were also outstanding, but Ladi Kwali remained grande dame of the Abuja pottery. In 1962 she spent three weeks in England demonstrating Gwari pot – building techniques, attending another Berkeley Gallery Exhibition of Abuja Pottery and received the MBE. Coming back to Abuja she was so full of her experiences that other staffs sardonically nicknamed her ‘Radio London’, ( as Michael O’Brien, who came to Abuja soon afterwards and later took over from Cardew, recalls). later she was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria , an unprecedented academic distinction for a woman potter without formal education.

She would certainly not have granted this if she had not been ‘discovered’ by Cardew and then the world outside Nigeria. Michael Cardew stayed at Abuja until 1965, normally spending ten months there and two on leave at Wenford Bridge in every year, but also going back to Ghana occasionally to help Kofi at Vume. Abuja turned out to be just as pleasant a place in which to run a pottery training center as he had envisaged in his diary notes of 1951, and the Emir,the famous Suleiman Barau,was even better than ‘1st rate’,being a friend, supporter and advisor in everything. But it was not an easy life. Cardew`s early Nigerian years involved him in relentless physical slog, following in the footsteps of the great geologist Falconer on camping treks of several days at a time in his search for kaolin, feldspar, limestone and other raw materials for pottery and glazes. He was already in his fifties - much older than the Nigerians who accompanied him -and continued to suffer regular bouts of ill-health, including bilharzia and from the results of some dramatic car accidents.

Cardew was unique in his relationship with Nigerian potters, But he was also part of a group of British people in the 1950s who tried, in the run-up to independence, to make sure that Nigerian art and history were appreciated and preserved for the people of Nigeria. these included Bernard Fagg, who excavated the Nok culture, started the Jos museum and instigated instigated the magnificent collection of pots there;Sylvia Leith-Ross, who collected the pots for jos at the already distinguished career in education, the historian Michael Crowder, who succeeded E.H.Duckworth as editor of Nigeria Magazine and Kenneth Murray, first Survey of Antiquities. He wrote the introduction ‘pottery techniques in Nigeria’ for Sylvia Leith-Ross’s Nigerian pottery ( Ibadan,1970) and articles on traditional pottery for Nigeria Magazine as well as his book pioneer pottery for studio potters starting up in similar conditions.

The Abuja Pottery Training Centre never fulfilled the early aim of spreading a network of small potteries, run by potters trained there, to supply new Nigerian needs.By the late fifties it has become a show piece celebrated in Nigeria and abroad, and sold mainly to expatriates and members of Nigerian elites. the best pots were put aside for London or other European exhibitions. Peter Dick, a british potter who worked at Abuja in 1961-2, remembers the staff saying ‘Sai London! Sai paris!’ when an exceptionally good pot emerged from the kiln.

Potteries started by Abuja- trained potters under Cardew’s guidance in Sokoto and Kano failed within a few years, largely, Cardew said in later discussions with O’Brien, because as government employees the workers never worked hard enough or use enough initiative to make them succeed. The later Jos pottery, founded with help from Bernard Fagg and money from an American ‘fairy good mother`, did continue under Kofi Athey.

How did the training centre continue to obtain government finance well into the era of independence Nigeria? It was never commercial until after cardew’s departure ( under Michael O’Brien}and its original purpose of created a network of rural industries to supply to supply Nigerians with a tableware made locally from local materials had not been fulfilled. Was Cardew just lucky to find modest but secure patronage for a marvelous experiment in Anglo-Nigerian cross-cultural ceramics,because of the particular circumstances of northern Nigerian? Certainly the publicity Abuja brought to Nigeria at a crucial time in its history was favorably viewed by both the late colonial and new Nigerian governments.

Michael Cardew, having left Nigeria rather reluctantly ( though well past civil service retirement age at 64 ),did not cease to be involved with his old friends. Ladi Kwali went on another triumphant tour demonstrating her work, this time to the United states in 1972 with Cardew and Kofi athey assisting and explaining where necessary. She has continued working at the pottery, and one the most delightful scenes in the BBC television film of 1974 Mud and Water man shows her greeting Cardew on her return visit to his old place at Abuja with its new buildings. He continued his active and international life until his sudden death in Cornwall in 1983. Ladi Kwali died at almost the same time but at a much younger age in Minna. Kofi Athey, after leaving Jos at about 1990, worked in the early nineties at Margaret Mama’s Jacaranda pottery, also near Kaduna, with some other Abuja staff trained by Cardew, and is believed to died in Ghana in the 1990’s. The Emir of Abuja, who was so vital a part of this ( as of other developments in his emirate), has also died. So what is left ?

There has been small but significant continuing results from this unusual episode in late colonial history, and this obsession of an English potter. There was of course the impact of Ghana and Nigeria on Cardew’s own work, for the pots of his west African period are generally agreed to have been among his best. But also he gave a unique training to his small group of trainee potters and stimulated appreciation, both in Nigeria and elsewhere, of traditional pots and potters.

The Ladi Kwali pottery at Abuja is still government–owned and employing staff, but reports suggest it is not producing much pottery. I have not yet been able to visit it to see for myself.

Perhaps the Anglo-Nigeria studio pottery movement started by Cardew is being upheld more effectively elsewhere in the country. Michael O’Brien, Cardew’s colleague and immediate successor, continues to spent much of his time unobtrusively helping Nigerian potters. One such is Danlam Aliyu of Al Habib pottery, Minna, who was trained by O’Brien at Abuja and then by Cardew at Wenford Bridge, his pottery in Cornwall. Danlami has written in Pottery Quarterly about his work and the fact that his work is different from that of local women but in no way supplants it. His brother Umaru also runs a successful small pottery, the Maraba near Kaduna. Others, though not directly connected to Cardew, have found inspiration in his work for similar subjects in other parts of Nigeria. Cardew’s forecast that traditional pottery would not be threatened by this studio pottery has been proved correctly. The threat comes from much bigger forces. Cardew’s was a ‘small is beautiful’ enterprise, embodying his care for, and enjoyment of, the people and their environment.

This article arises from research for a project biography of Michael Cardew’s work in west Africa from 1942 to 1965. I would like to thank Michael O’ Brien, Cardew’s successor at Abuja, and Michael Cardew’s eldest son, Seth Cardew, of Wenford Bridge Pottery in Cornwall, for their great help with this project, as well as Cardew’s friends and colleagues who have contributed their recollections.


  • Cardew M.A. 1950 A preliminary Survey of pottery in West Africa (report). Lagos, Department of Commerce and Industry
  • 1951 A Tour of parts of Zaria, Plateau, Niger, Ilorin and Kabba …(report) Lagos Department of Commerce and Industry
  • 1952 “Nigerian Traditional Pottery,” Nigeria Magazine3
  • 1961 “Firing the Big Pot and Kwali,” Nigeria Magazine 7
  • 1962 “ Traditional Pottery. The pottery training Centre,” in Alhaji Hassan and Mallam Shaibu Na’ibi, tr.F.Heath,
    A chronicle of Abuja, African Universities Press, 2nd ed. Lago
  • 1969 Pioneer Pottery. London: Longma
  • 1988 A Pioneer Potter: An Autobiography. London: Collin
  • 1989 A Pioneer Potter (paperback) Oxford University Pres
  • 1970 “Pottery Techniques in Nigeria,” in S.Leith Ross, Nigerian Pottery Ibadan University Press
    Unpublished notes, letters and diaries, consulted courtesy of his son, Seth Cardew
  • Aliyu,D 1980 “Nigerian Pottery Tradition and New Techniques,”
    Pottery Quarterly
  • Michael Cardew and pupils 1983 Catalogue: exhibition at York City Art Galler
  • Clark,G. 1978 Michael Cardew. London: Fabe
  • Falconer, J.D 1911 the geology and geography of Northern Nigeria. London: Macmillia
  • Hallum, Alister 1974 Mud and Water Man BBC/Arts Council of Great Britain (television program
  • O’Brien,M. 1975 Abuja after Michael Cardew,” Ceramic Review 34

Quality of photos - The photographs are scanned from the journal and enhanced as far as possible.

Also of interest: The Interpreting Ceramics Michael Cardew Centenary Symposium. Includes several articles on Cardew and an interview of Michael O’Brien by Jeffrey Jones.

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