The Untold Story Of LADI KWALI, Nigeria’s Most Famous Potter And The Woman On N20 Naira Note

Please, do you have N20 note with you? Abeg, check your pocket. E suppose remain small sheinj na…lol! Okay. Turn it over and take a look at the back. Yes, the woman you are looking at is Ladi. Ladi Kwali, Nigeria’s most famous potter (or ceramist in modern parlance). Dr. Hajia HADIZA LADI DOSEI KWALI, MBE, D.Litt (ABU) is the only woman of prominence to grace any Nigerian note.

But wait a minute, why is she the only woman, and why is she gracing the back of one out of the eight naira notes we’ve got? In a nation where women make up about half of the population, I am not too sure if we have been fair enough with their representations as our monetary symbols. And why does she even have to be at the back gan sef? Why not in front? Or what do you think? Na so so guys full front. And please, don’t even talk about the N5,000 note, ok?

Well, that’s not the topic for today. We’ll focus on Ladi Kwali for now. When I was in JSS2 or so and our Fine Arts teacher mentioned her name, I was actually thinking the person was a ‘male’ because in my area, ‘Ladi’ is the shortened form of Oladimeji, a name normally reserved for males. I got the shock of my life when I checked the text book (I can’t remember if it was Emu Ogumor now) and saw a veiled woman cuddling pots with every bit of mastery on display…lol!

Ladi Kwali was born in 1925 (some records like the 1984 Nigeria Year Book indicate 1920) in the village of Kwali, Abuja to a family of potters. In her family, the women were renowned for making outstandingly beautiful pots which were not just very impressive in terms of aesthetics but also had great functional value. These pots were used for ornamental purposes in the residences of the aristocrats while they found general use in storing water and in the kitchen to cook. Her first name ‘Ladi’ means ‘born on Sunday’ while the Kwali is the name of her Gwari town.


For centuries, the art of pottery has been the exclusive reserve of women in various cultures of Nigeria and other parts of Africa. Apart from the fact that these pots found a lot of uses, they were also (and still remain) veritable sources of income. And seriously, they’ve got wonderful items! Watch a video of Ushafa women potters here and make sure you patronise our local craftsmen and women. That way, you support their families, boost the economy and keep the money in local circulation (no mind the big thieves dem, thunder faya all of them!):

It was while growing up as a child that she learnt the traditional art of pottery using a method referred to as ‘coiling and pinching’. She served as an apprentice under an aunt (her own mother was also a potter). You know small children pick up things very fast, especially in their surroundings watching adults doing it. With time, Ladi Kwali would become even much better and renowned than those she learnt the art from. The coiling method involved shaping slabs and coils of clay with the aid of a paddle with flattened surfaces made from wood.

After getting the desired shape, she then goes ahead to make very impressive designs and dazzling geometric patterns on them. Her designs were truly very beautiful and a sight to behold. Once these designs are done, the next thing is to collect them and put in a blazing flame fuelled with dry grass. That was the tradition for thousands of years in Kwali and the women potter stuck to their age-long tradition.

Watch her in action HERE

This film was made partly at Abuja in Nigeria and partly at the Wenford Bridge Pottery in Cornwall.
The Wenford Bridge Pottery was founded by Michael Cardew (1901-1983) in 1939. He produced earthenware and stoneware there, but was not able to earn a living by selling his products. In 1942 he took a post in the Colonial Service in Ghana, first teaching pottery at Achimota school. Later he founded a pottery with the backing of the Colonial Office, which however failed a few years later. He then founded another pottery at Vume on the River Volta. In 1948 he returned to Wenford Bridge.
In 1951 he went to Africa again, this time to Nigeria, to take up the post of Pottery Officer in the Department of Commerce and Industry. He founded a pottery training centre in Abuja and worked there until his retirement in 1965, when he returned to Wenford Bridge.

The first part of the film features Ladi Kwali (c. 1925-1984), a potter from the Gwari region in Northern Nigeria. She joined the pottery training centre in Abuja in 1954, the first female potter to do so. She went on to become Nigeria’s best known potter, and her work was shown in Europe and America. The film shows her making a pot at the pottery training centre. The third section of the film features her again, making a pot at the Wenford Bridge pottery in front of an audience. The middle section of the film shows activities at the pottery training centre.

Accession Number: 2014.8.1

Credits:  Pitt Rivers Museum

GENIUS: Proudly wearing her medal of honour.

Unlike some others, Ladi Kwali took time to make her designs and they stood out with their extreme beauty and exquisite charm. The Emir of Abuja, Alhaji Suleiman Barau was so enchanted that he bought many for his collection (how I wish Nigerian leaders today will keep patronizing the local artisans and manufacturers instead of shamelessly running abroad and engaging in annoying consumerist stupidities that belittle the effort of every hardworking Nigerian).

It was at the palace of the Emir of Abuja that the famed English studio potter, Michael Cardew, OBE, saw her pots on a visit in 1950. Cardew was also astonished at the level of detail and skill that must have gone into the making of those pots. Michael Cardew (who later stayed behind working in West Africa for good 20 years) took it upon himself to proclaim the talents of the legendary potter to the whole world. Ladi Kwali’s trip to fame was initiated and till date, her works remain legendary and remains an icon of modern art in Nigeria.

In 1951, the British colonial government (via the Northern Regional Government), Cardew was appointed as the Pottery Officer at the Department of Commerce and Industry. His job was simple: build a rural industry that would serve as a replace the factory-made tableware imported for European meals.

It was then he built a very successful pottery training center in Abuja and recruited Hausa and Gwari men whom he trained. But when he spotted the works of Ladi Kwali, he knew that was the real stuff and she became the very first woman potter to be enrolled at the Abuja Pottery Center in 1954. He managed to convince her to come over to Abuja and from then on, her spot in fame was assured.

At the center, she was exposed to modern methods which she adopted. For the first time, she started using the potter’s wheel (they did not use that in her village) and with time, her skills even became much more refined. In addition to making pots, she also made eating bowls, dishes and beakers with outstanding sgraffito designs.

Sgrafitto is a type of technique in which layers of contrasting colours are applied to the surface of an unfired ceramic then scraped or scratched to produce a drawing in the outline. Artists in the house will tell us more about that joor!

Ladi Kwali and Michael Cardew

Michael Cardew

Their pottery center

Her work

Another of Ladi’s works.

But there is one thing I must tell you about her. Even though she came to learn and adopt modern techniques such as throwing, decorating and glazing, she never abandoned her old traditional methods of making and decorating the pots with bare hands. All she did was to perfectly blend the two together or use whichever one suited her purpose.

And her blending of traditional African pottery with Western studio pottery (using high-temperature kilns) to create a unique Anglo-Nigerian style was nothing short of pure genius! And another thing: Kwali was clearly recognized as a potter of outstanding craftsmanship within the Gwari community before joining the center. So, she had already made a name for herself before joining the center, her joining the center only amplified what was on ground.

-On October 1, 1960, her works were displayed at the Nigerian Independence Day Celebrations.

-In 1963, after one of her superb demonstrations (she toured England in 1962), she was honoured with the award of the Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) (see pictures). She was an easy-going woman , very easy to communicate with and had a cheerful disposition. These features made her indispensable on her overseas tours where she eagerly demonstrated her techniques to wide-eyed whites….lol! Upon coming back from the United Kingdom after the award, she was so excited and narrated all her experiences so much so that staff at the center sarcastically nicknamed her ‘Radio London’…lol!

-She had workshops, demonstrations and exhibitions all over the globe: American cities: Dallas, Los Angeles and Chicago, Italy, Geneva (Switzerland), Canada, Germany, London (United Kingdom) and others. She was more of an artist and designer than a technician.

-Later on, the Abuja Pottery Center was renamed Ladi Kwali Pottery Center in her honour after her death in the 1984 and same goes for the Ladi Kwali Way in Maitama, Abuja which bears her name today. She is also, as you know, featured on the reverse of the N20 note.

The N20 naira note before her image was put there.

-Although she never went to school, could neither read nor write, she was honoured with a doctorate degree by the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Kaduna State and head of state Yakubu Gowon was present at the event. She was actually a part-time lecturer and demonstrator at the university. One of her students is Professor Abbas Ahuwan, now a ceramist and lecturer at ABU. He would later introduce the ‘udu’ drum to his American student, Frank Giorgini. Today, the udu drum has now been adopted in the United States as percussion instrument.

-In 1980, the Nigerian Government (from the Cabinet Office of the Federal Republic of Nigeria) invested on her with the insignia of the Nigerian National Merit Award (NNMA), the highest national honour for academic achievement. This award in itself turned her into ‘an institution of Art’.

-She also received the national honour of the Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON) in 1981. If there is anything you are good at, I tell you, keep doing it irrespective of the obstacles of life or the sneers and jeers of the enemies.

Silver Award for Excellence, Tenth International Exhibition for Ceramic Art, Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC.

-Then there is also the Ladi Kwali Convention Center, one of the largest conference facilities in Abuja. The center is located at the Abuja Sheraton Hotel and has a total of 10 meeting rooms and four ball rooms, see photos below:

-The Dr.Ladi Kwali Road near NITEL Office in Minna, Niger State is named for her.

-Nigerian sculptor, Ambrose Diala is almost done with a sculpture of Ladi Kwali to be erected in from of the Federal Secretariat, Abuja.

Before I forget, Ladi Kwali is of the same ethnicity with Nigeria’s former Head of State and military dictator, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida. They are both Gwaris (also called Gwarin Yamma, Gbagyis or Gbaris and are found mainly in the FCT, Nasarawa, Kaduna, Kogi and Niger States). See photos of Gbagyi women below:

She died on the 12th of August 1984 at the age of 59 in Minna, shortly after Cardew’s death the previous year. Upon her death, many of her students of pottery took over and continued the art at the Abuja Pottery Training Center. Although married, she did not have any child making me disagree with the Yoruba notion that it is only your progeny that can sustain your legacy. It is better not to have any kids at all than have some arungun and akotileta children who will just laze away and destroy all you have laboured for all your life. Ki Olohun showa lowo awon omo kpao! bi canned beer. That said, I’ve got nothing against procreating just that it does not necessarily guarantee your name being sustained in history. Afterall, many of the world’s greatest figures that we remember today actually had no children or the much-hyped sons. Yes, you guessed right! I was thinking of him too! LOL!



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6 Responses

  1. pamilerinayo says:

    I love this historic

  2. El DRAGE says:

    This is a good research work hope you find more soon, keep it up folks.

  3. Note says:

    There is nothing as Emir of Abuja. Abuja is Gbagyi (Gwari) territory and they do not have emirs.

  4. Brad Viscome says:

    The things you just don’t think of. Many thanks.

  5. Paul says:

    Abiyamo, I really enjoy this educative piece. I feel you need to keep doing this.

  6. abolaji says:

    wonderful abiyamo I will love to read more of its kind…keep it up

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