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Resuscitating Ladi Kwali Pottery Centre

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During a recent visit to the once famous but later abandoned Ladi Kwali (formerly Abuja) Pottery Centre in Suleja, Niger State, the federal government hinted of its plans to resuscitate the centre and indeed the pottery industry. ABAH ADAH writes:

The Ladi Kwali pottery Centre, which was formerly Abuja Pottery Centre, remains the cradle of modern pottery (earthenware making) in Nigeria. The ancient region of Abuja was well known  for outstanding pottery products which were churned out through traditional methodology.

It employed a lot of crafts men and women, and the products attracted wide interest because of their functional and aesthetic values. In 1951, a famous British studio potter, Michael Cardew, employed by the Nigerian government as a pottery officer in the Department of Commerce and Industry, identified the unique and exceptional potential of Abuja Pottery and selected the area for the establishment of pottery training centre. The old Abuja which was later renamed as Suleja following the creation of a new Federal Capital Territory (FCT) within the region to be called Abuja, is now in the modern day Niger State.

The centre served as a historic point for the integration of Western Pottery techniques with the traditional Nigeria methods, which led to hybrid products that took the world by storm. Students at the centre were drawn from Europe and some communities in Northern Nigeria. They included but not limited to Peter Dick, Tanko Mohammed, Abu Karo, Danlami Aliyu, Gugong Bong Yawa, Peter Gboko, and Hassan Lapai.

How the centre became named after Ladi Kwali?

In 1954, Curdew spotted the works of a local woman potter, Ladi Kwali, and invited her to the centre. And she became the first woman potter there. She came in with revolutionary skills that combined with the use of western technology to stun the world.

Ladi later became a world renowned instructor at the centre and was later joined by other women potters such as Lami Toto, Kande Ushafa, and Asibo Ido.

Her exploits through the centre earned her local and international recognition and accolades to the extent that in 1970, the prestigious Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, where she worked as a part-time lecturer (even as she had no formal education) honoured her with an Honary Doctorate degree. Hence the centre was later named after her as mark of honour even in her death.

With the new production technology provided at the centre then, the local craft men and women were given the opportunity to explore the depth of their talents and achieve greater heights in production. They learnt the use of portal’s wheel to mass produce their pottery. They were taught glazing and kiln firing. There was at the centre an important interface between the traditional method and European techniques and this produced some of the best pottery the world had ever seen.

How the decay set in

Cardew retired in 1965 and left Nigeria. The centre remained a government enterprise run by Nigerians. Its emergence also spurred the establishment of other pottery centres in parts of the country. At its peak, the training centre became a vibrant industry with over 100 employees, and a tourist destination. Today, sadly enough, without the dynamism and enthusiasm that occassioned its meteoric growth, it has become a tragic ruin. The centre and its training facilities have been long abandoned by successive governments, a phenomenon believe to be a  major fallout of the oil boom experienced at some point, making the centre to become a shadow of itself.

Over the years, many lovers of the industry have yearned helplessly that the monumental tragedy of the iconic institution be reversed, but to no avail.

Move To Resuscitate The Centre

Now the Ministry of Mines and Steel Development (MMSD) has come up with a plan-to rehabilitate and restore the centre to its golden era under the World Bank assisted Mineral Sector Support for Economic Diversification (MINDIVER) programme in line with the diversification agenda of government and in a bid to satisfy the economic and aesthetic aims for which it was initially set up.

This was why the Minister, Abubakar Bawa Bwari visited the centre recently with a delegation from the World Bank headed by Nura Arfaa.

The Minister noted that the move was informed by the determination of the present administration to revive the pottery industry in furtherance of its mineral sector focused economic diversification drive.

The minister who was represented by the Director, Steel, Ime Ekrikpo said government’s mission is to rehabilitate the abandoned centre through the World Bank Assisted Mineral Sector Support for Economic Diversification (MinDiver) Programme (an intervention programme coordinated by Linus Adie in the ministry).

“I am indeed delighted for the opportunity to lead the delegation from the World Bank to Ladi Kwali Pottery Centre, Suleja because of the genuine desire of the present Administration to restore the golden pottery era leveraging on the abundant industrial mineral endowments of Niger State.

“The federal government shall upgrade the centre to meet the demands of contemporary modern pottery production,” he said.

The Minister who went down memory lane and recalled the glorious days of the centre however regretted that the centre which once drew the attention of the world to the Nigerian Pottery Industry through the exploits of famous potters like Michael Cardew (the one who found the centre in 1951), Ladi Dosei Kwali, Lami Toto, Akande Ushafa among others was allowed to decay from the neglect of successive governments over time.

Speaking, the Head of the Task Team from the World Bank, Nura Arfaa who described the move as impressive expressed the hope that it will ultimately go beyond employment and revenue generation to national integration and unity, adding, “I am interested in seeing how far it goes in the next one or two years.

Earlier, she was conducted round the entire complex which is now a shadow of itself, with roofless buildings and dilapidated structures by a Nigerian pottery expert and local and international award winner, Yakubu Dajo, the MD/CEO of Dajo Pottery who learnt under Ladi Kwali as an intern from Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria.

Dajo who expressed fulfillment in the steps being taken by government resuscitation the centre said the solid mineral sector in Nigeria is rich enough that when properly harnessed, has the potentials of turning the economy around, adding that with the revolution going on globally, oil may not hold sway for too long.

“The ceramics industry alone utilises more than 30 solid minerals, and by the time the industry gets its bearing back, it will be the greatest off taker of solid mineral resources-clay, kaolin, and several others.

“Sadly, Nigeria is ranked 9th out of the 18 countries leading in ceramics trade globally, but Nigeria is the only country among them that is not exporting any ceramics, even as we home to 99% of the solid minerals,” he said.

The Coordinator, MINDIVER, Linus Adie appealed the state and local governments, the royal fathers, the community and other stakeholders to key into the initiative and work together to ensure that the centre is revamped and made to take its pride of place in the committee of nations.

He also challenged the youth to re-examine themselves and develop their skills to excel the same way Ladi Kwali did.

On behalf of the state government, the Commissioner for Culture and Tourism, Daniel Kolo who was represented by a deputy director, Lawal Shehu who expressed gratitude to the federal government and the World Bank for taking steps towards restoring the glory of the centre pledged their unflinching support in the course of the project.

The team also paid courtesy call on the Emir of Zazzau, Suleja who equally express delight over the project, assuring of maximum support.

A living woman contemporary of Ladi Kwali, now over 80 years of age, Hajiya Kande Ushafa who was at the event also said she was very delighted and fulfilled to witness initiative, adding she cannot weight to see the centre restored to the glory it enjoyed way back when they were much younger and working there.

She said each time she passed by the area and saw the sorry state of the centre, her heart quaked.

She said she is very much available to assist in any little way possible at the centre.

In likewise manner, Alh. Nda Alhassan who headed the centre from 1956 and retired after his years of service were over expressed gratitude to the federal government and the World Bank for the initiative.

He said the place became an eyesore, his mind has always been troubled each time he passed.

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