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Title photo above, from the launch of Alan Windsor’s book, Siddig el Nigoumi, A Sudanese Potter in England, depicting his piece, Jabana (Sudanese coffee pot) 1959, porcelain stoneware with cane handle. (Twitter, Lund Humphries, November, 2015)

El Nigoumi’s jabana seamlessly fuses the fluid forms of the traditional Sudanese coffee pot with elements of Japanese and English design. Right, El Nigoumi’s ubiquitous scorpion signature, sometimes accompanied by a tiny bird. Below, the artist’s quiet humour revealed as his scorpion nestles between pots incised on pot; earthenware fired and smoked to produce the black and red tones so emblematic of both ancient and contemporary Sudanese ceramics. Before firing, the piece would be burnished; an ancient alternative to glazing where the surface is rubbed with a pebble, shell or teaspoon until the leather-hard clay becomes glossy and smooth, making the vessel less porous and more resilient.

Dish, 1989, Press-moulded burnished earthenware

Siddig El Nigoumi; Burnished Clay, Form and Fire

The Scorpion and The Coffee Pot

Setting the Scene

In the midst of the recent Covid-19 lockdown in the UK, many turned to creativity to counter the stress of confinement. Hove Museum and Art Gallery threw down a challenge, pictured below, to its craftsmen and women under the title A Medley of Cultures. A challenge which took as its starting point a work by Siddig El Nigoumi. Fish Dish, 1983, embodies many of the potter’s Sudanese artistic values and was made of Fremington Devon clay. But who was Siddig El Nigoumi?


Siddig El Nigoumi; Burnished Clay, Form and Fire

The Scorpion and The Coffee Pot

Siddig El Nigoumi; Burnished Clay, Form and Fire

Siddig El Nigoumi (1933-1996) was an Anglo-Sudanese master calligrapher (student and colleague of Osman Abdullah Wagiallah), illustrator and potter. One of his former students, who also excelled in burnished earthenware, Professor Magdalene Odundo, described El Nigoumi as the “Sudanese Banksy” of ceramic art. If this description is accurate, he was, by all accounts, a firm but gentle iconoclast. To African imagery and form, he brought what critics such as Eliza Sawyer have described as a rhythmic tension to his work through the discipline and flow of Arabic calligraphy. When he settled in Farnham in 1967, the forms and imagery of his adopted homeland excited his creative imagination – generating “unexpected and sometimes disturbing values”. HIs work celebrated “things lost, forgotten or ignored through familiarity or neglect.” (Sebastian Blackie, Siddig el Nigoumi: A Potter in Exile Sebastian Blackie

Siddig El Nigoumi featured on the cover of January, 1989 edition of Ceramics Monthly. He bore the ritual cheek scarification of the Ja’aliin tribe. Experts have theorized such marks are echoed in the incised patterns of ancient pottery, El Nigoumi’s ancestors distinguished themselves in the Mahdist revolution. See Alan Windsor, Siddig El Nigoumi, A Sudanese Potter in England, pp13-17, pictured below.

Joyous roaring lion cubs, deliciously tactile, mud-glossy hippopotami, cows in pharaonic profile floating past fronds of papyrus; his sculptures hint at the clay figures he fashioned out of Nile mud as a child. He pays creative homage to both African cave paintings on burnished clay and the white chalk horses (see White Horses Dish, 1988) of English hillsides. Road signs and Guardian crossword motifs reflect something of the “childlike wonder” he initially viewed the new cultural landscape he came to both joyfully and painfully inhabit.

In what has been described as Nigoumi’s ability to dignify the insignificant”, (Sebastian Blackie), the esthetic grace behind the quiet economy and functionality of the Sudanese ibreeg, water pitcher and ablutions jug, pictured below, and the janaba is amplified and renewed. In 1972, Nigoumi was elected to The Craft Potters Association and in 1980/81 several of his pieces were acquired by The Victoria and Albert Museum.

Photo, Smashing Pots, Feats of Clay , Nigel Barley, pp102/3

El Nigoumi used charity shop knitting needles to incise his motifs, often echoing ancient Sudanese patterns, and a puffer to clear away dust after incising. “The patterned weaving of basket ware and carpets, especially the prayer mats and covers for food his mother used to make” was often the inspiration for his designs. Jane Perryman

See Weaving Brighter Futures for more on Sudanese basketry.

Described as the “most successful of his generation of ex-patriot Africans at synthesizing British and African cultures” (Madgalene Odundo), El Nigoumi was a gifted thrower. However, as his focus shifted from unglazed stoneware to burnished low-fired earthenware, his commitment to advancing Sudanese artistic and crafts esthetics through the medium of African burnished earthenware led him to prize “the slow and contemplative processes of hand-building.” Emmanuel Cooper reminds us in his obituary of El Nigoumi that “All his pots were built by coiling and smoothing, or by pressing slabs of clay into plaster of Paris moulds. Some pieces were covered with a thin layer of slip made from Nile Valley clay, which produced a glowing rich orange-red colour. The slip was highly prized by Siddig who said it was irreplaceable.”

He became a master, teacher and passionate advocate of the highly skilled art of smoke firing. (Smoke Firing: Contemporary Artists and Approaches by Jane Perryman, p 32) On pots which had already been fired in the electric kiln, “he would smoke the surface with a lighted taper of finely rolled newspaper, the flame licking the surface and depositing a thin but delicate mottled patterning, animating the pots with the fragrance of his native Africa.” (Emmanuel Cooper)

“Siddig El Nigoumi introduced the technique of carbonizing with newspaper to Britain, a method which has now become a recognized part of contemporary ceramics practice.” Jane Perryman, Smoke Firing: Contemporary Artists and Approaches

His Nigoumi Hard glaze “treasured for its versatility”, yields a range of colors from “earthy brown to khaki (in a way mimicking the carbonization of smoked pots)”, Siddig El Nigoumi, A Sudanese Potter in England, p 60

Nubian House Dish, 1975, press-moulded stoneware, inspired by traditional Nubian house decoration. See more on Nubia house decoration and the role women play in Inscriptions on Rosewater .

Siddig El NIgoumi, The Scorpion and the Coffee Pot

The Scorpion

Image from Scorpions in Muslim Folklore (see below).

An Arabic proverb from Syria warns “By the side of scorpion do not come, by the side of the snake spread your bed and sleep” for scorpions, unlike snakes, Jurgen Kasim Frembgen explains, always come back and cannot be frightened away. (The Scorpion in Muslim Folklore,

Talismanic scorpion motifs adorned the soles of the deceased’s sandals in ancient Egyptian tombs, beadwork amulets in the form of scorpions hung in the doorways of Egyptian homes warded off both scorpions and the evil eye, scorpion and snake charms guarded the newly married from infertility and other harm; the magical, protective and deadly powers of the scorpion pervade early Coptic, Roman and Muslim folklore. “In Nubia”, Frembgen records, “embroidered pieces of cloth depicting scorpions are supposed to protect the house from being entered by real scorpions as well as scorpion-shaped demons”.

leather amulets, or hijabs, whose motifs may have inspired El Nigoumi’s ceramic pendents.

Whether El Nigoumi chose the scorpion for his signature, as has been suggested, as a memory of his desert homeland or for its other rich cultural resonances, many writers have noted the discreet “resilience of the scorpion” El Nigoumi displayed in the face of personal challenge, and the “conceptual sting often hidden in his quiet patterns”, in turn accompanied by the “sting of social commentary” of his work (Sebastian Blackie). (See, for example, Greenham Common Dish, 1985) And El Nigoumi absorbed the stings of colonialism and racism with his own unique antidote of humor and clever subversion.

PurePastel 2.pdf

While attending Khartoum School of Art, having mastered both the potter’s wheel and the teapots and casseroles of the colonial curriculum, Nigoumi determinedly found ways to ”avoid the use of western equipment in favour of simpler but effective African techniques.” (Siddig el Nigoumi, A Sudanese Potter in England p24)

Later at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, Alan Windsor recounts, “He occasionally experienced people shouting abuse from wound-down car windows, exhorting him to return to Jamaica, which secretly amused him. He later adopted a beret which he thought was a very un-West Indian head cover ..”

Royal Wedding Dish, 1981, press-moulded burnished earthenware, and said to incorporate a schematized scorpion with the Union flag.

As Deputy Head of the Ceramics Department in Khartoum, he canceled the library subscription to Pottery and Glass so his students would be drawn to explore and appreciate with new eyes their own culture but perhaps the most revealing episode recorded by Windsor occurred while El Nigoumi was a technical assistant in the pottery department at Farnham Art School. Hassled and interrupted by a member of staff constantly, he explained with a “beaming smile” that he had struck upon a solution: to carry a bucket with him at all times. It didn’t matter if it was full or empty; as long as I appeared to be working, I was left in peace.”

The Coffee Pot

Above, a Sudanese Jabanah, its rounded base resting on its beaded stand or wagayyah. My thanks to Chris Graham of Sudan Teachers FB Group for this photo. El Nigoumi’s piece, below, together with the cups also made in the series have kept the traditional rounded base. The jabana sits like a delicate bird on its nest.

The coffee pot was to have a profound influence on El Nigoumi’s artistic development. Jane Perryman records in Smoke Firing: Contemporary Artists and Approaches, that while working at Farnham, El Nigoumi

“ began to notice a ceramic coffee pot sitting on a shelf in his living room which he brought back from Sudan. It was low-fired and burnished with a limited sgraffito pattern (otherwise it would become porous). Nigoumi recognized this coffee pot as an important symbol of his upbringing – the pot was Sudanese African, but the tray it was served on was covered with Arabic calligraphy. This Sudanese coffee pot became pivotal in marking a change of direction in his work. It was in the early 1980s that Nigoumi found the style which became his hallmark – the traditional techniques of hand-building, burnishing and low-temperature firing. In his native country, the coffee pot would have been fired in the open using wood and dung for fuel, causing black-fire marks from patches of carbon. He began firing this new burnished work in an electric kiln, but needed to find a way of introducing smoke marks to express the African connection. He began investigating ways of carbonizing the pots and discovered the simple but effective solution of localized smoking with newspaper.”

Ornate jebana, Omdurman, 1958. Smashing Pots, Feats of Clay from Africa, Nigel Barley, 1994.

“..he carried out the smoking on the open ground with minimum fuss, and during the time I watched him, wearing a suit jacket. He would hold the flaming newspaper (without gloves) about an inch from the ceramic surface..”

Ironically, it was one of the those newspaper scraps that caught El Nigoumi’s eye and inspired his Guardian Crossword pieces, (see below) revealing, in the words of Sebastian Blackie, “his unconventional ability to identify, extract and personalize images whose significance is transformed and universalized by imagination”.

From Siddig El Nigoumi, by Sebastian Blackie, published in

My next cultural post is dedicated to women potters in Sudan

Watch Sudanese potters at work in

Colonial era photograph of women with their pots.

Below, a Sudanese pot bought in Dilling, Kordofan in the early 1980s.

This is a cultural post for Women’s Education Partnership.

2 comments on “The Scorpion and The Coffee Pot

  1. Vicki Nigoumi says:

    Very well researched article. Nigoumi pioneered so many aspics
    From a unique way of making plaster mounds , colour glaze for stoneware burnishing carbonised and scrafito
    Decoration and combined cultures.
    In 2014 we had an exhibition at Farnham Museum with the help of Liz May called Combining Culters
    Vicki Nigoumi


    1. Thank you so much for your message. It is an honor and a privilege to hear from you.


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