“How Earth Works”*
Ceramicist Mohammed Ahmed Abdalla “Mo” Abbaro
The graceful porcelain vessel above, whose muted turquoise and greens melt away into glowing oranges and rich earth tones, is the work of late ceramicist and teacher, Mo Abbaro. A year after graduating in Fine and Applied Arts from Khartoum Technical Institute, in 1959 Mo Abbaro won a scholarship to study ceramics at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. After postgraduate studies in industrial pottery design at North Staffordshire College of Ceramics, he qualified in ceramic chemical analysis at the North Staffs College of Ceramics Technology. Mo Abbaro went on to teach ceramics at the Camden Arts Centre for more than two decades.
Mo Abbaro’s work has been exhibited at The Barbican Centre, Whitechapel Gallery (Africa 95), Camden Arts Centre, Tate Liverpool and Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington DC. His work can be found in collections at The British Museum, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and Institute Du Monde Arabe, Paris. It has also been showcased with that of Bernard Leach and other leading British ceramicists.
Photo, Sudan Memory – Mo Abbaro
“How Earth Works”
Setting the Scene: How earth Works
Abdalla Abbaro by Frédérique Cifuentes
Setting the Scene: How Earth Works
This week’s post explores the work of the late, great London-based Sudanese ceramicist, known to so many as Mo Abbaro. For this artistic polymath who reprised his early loves of textiles, painting and even knitting and carpentry in later life, ceramics was nothing less than the celebration of “how earth works.” And it was the thrill of learning “how earth works” – the science, chemistry, endless industrial applications, as well as the delicate artistic and painstakingly honed artisan skills it encompasses – that led him to “pioneer glazing and firing techniques” and excel in “bold experiments in new slips and surface treatments” to create wonderfully complex tactile, organic forms. Photo above left, still from Moniem Ibrahim’s intimate Arabic film tribute Mo Abbaro – Moniem Ibrahim
Through Abbaro’s own words, Frédérique Cifuentes’ short film Abdalla Abbaro, linked below and the centre piece of this article, captures the vision and force of character of an artist whose tutor dismissed his request to specialize in ceramics, complaining “all you did was make balls of clay and throw them at people.” Luckily, the tenacity that had led him to walk miles through Omdurman as a student and take up carpentry there to support himself (Moniem Ibrahim, above) emboldened him to defy his tutor and become a ceramicist proud to define himself as both a working potter and scientist committed to constant experimentation.
“During what he called his igneous period,” The Telegraph noted, “he created tactile pots that felt like volcanic earth and snakeskin.” (sources; The Telegraph, Mo Abbaro, Ceramicist – Obituary, 19th May 2016, Visionary Artists – The Khartoum School and British Museum Mohammed Abdalla). Photo, right, artwork by Abbaro, Collection: Issam Ahmed Abdelhafiez Sudan Memory – Mo Abbaro
*”How Earth Works”; Mo Abbaro speaking to Frédérique Cifuentes in Mo Abbaro – Frédérique Cifuentes on Vimeo
“My forms are always rather wild” – Mo Abarro, quoted in The Telegraph, as above.
Abbaro “formed the hollowed sphere of this pot with its tapered ends by building up coils of clay and then smoothing the walls, which he coated with a series of glazes. After they dried, the pot was fired in an electric kiln. To produce its reptilian surface, the pot was dipped in a magnesium slip and fired again.” Visionary Artists – The Khartoum School
For more examples of Mo Abbaro’s work, see Ray of Light Studio Mo Abbaro
Setting the Scene: Sources of Inspiration
Abbaro’s work abounds with exquisite reinterpretations of impossibly fine walled Sudanese Kerma ware, pictured left and below, the liquid cascading rounded forms of mushrooms, ostrich eggs and molten lava, and what he called the pleasingly tactile “roughness” of bark, snakeskin and crazed mineral surfaces.
Stressing that everything in his intensely lived childhood flowed into his creative life – his mother’s bright, woven food covers, the ball of wool he kept in his pocket to weave shawls on his way to school and back, his childlike delight at being a goatherd (Moniem Ibrahim) – Abbaro turned in later life to capturing in clay the animals of his South Kordofan homeland. “I made them as gentle and friendly as I, nostalgically, remembered my animal friends then.”
Abbaro drew upon and celebrated traditional Sudanese coil pottery techniques, as well as African and European wheel skills. He also recognized the power of colour to both change and enhance – elongate and round – ceramic form, rather than being merely decorative in function, His glowing pieces often reflected his “fondness for lime greens and gentle pinks.” (The Telegraph, as above.)
See too Classic Kerma Beaker
If you are interested in British-Sudanese ceramicists, you might enjoy The Scorpion and The Coffee Pot
Short Film, Abdalla Abbaro, by Frédérique Cifuentes
Cifuentes’ evocative portrait captures the warmth, restless energy and quiet nobility of a pioneering ceramicist, tireless ambassador for Sudanese arts and inspiring teacher of over thirty year.
Mo Abbaro and his wife Rose’s London home was open house to artists and intellectuals and many fondly remember his “laughter and infallible good humour” as the world was put to rights with friends amidst the swirling cigarette, cigar and pipe smoke of The Spaniard’s Inn, Hampstead (Jillian Osman, Memories of Mo, Jillian Osman, SSSUK)
Click on the link below to watch the film.
“For two weeks, our family home saw a continual traffic of intellectuals and celebrities — Marty Feldman was once a guest — openly sharing their opinions about art and life. The barbecues my parents held in the garden just before Christmas, often in the snow, with Sudanese food cooked by Mo, became legendary and are fondly remembered by his family and friends. I myself have happy memories of the potter’s wheel whirring late into the night as Mo prepared for one of his exhibitions. Even in the coldest winters, the house was kept warm by his kiln firing a steady stream of beautiful pots. His signature effects included bubbling textured surfaces and animal forms. I’d often drop into his studio to find a new set of perfect goblets fresh from being biscuit-fired in the kiln, their distinct smell of warm, dried clay permeating every room.”
Family members remembering Mo Abbaro in
Mo Abbaro, ceramicist – obituary The Telegraph, 19th May, 2016
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