Photo: Mike Lang for Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Reclaiming Our Heritage, One Pot at a Time

Osa Atoe is a Nigerian-American studio potter using her work to honor the heritage of African continental and diasporic ceramicists who molded pots for sustenance, ritual, and community. Form and surface decoration techniques link Atoe's pottery to a lineage extending back to Nigeria, where her parents immigrated from in the 1970s. She also draws inspiration from elder ceramicists such as David MacDonald, Jabulile Nala and Nigeria's most renowned potter, Ladi Kwali. Given Atoe's lack of exposure to any evidence linking Black people to ceramics within educational clay contexts, her work stands as the culmination of years of independent research and study.

Through her focus on Black clay cultures, Atoe manages to find a universal language in clay—one that speaks across cultures. Her African- and nature-inspired pottery is a testament to our shared humanity. Atoe's pottery creates points of connection that highlight our commonalities rather than our differences, a balm in our increasingly polarized society. She believes her pottery manifests as symbols of idealism, and are a visual and tactile respite from the division, acrimony, and injustice of the world. 

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My Story

My name is Osa Atoe (Ah-toy) and I am a Nigerian-American ceramicist living in Sarasota, Florida. Pottery by Osa grew out of my kitchen in New Orleans, Louisiana in 2015 and has since expanded to a full sized studio garage space at my current home in Sarasota, Florida. I took my first pottery class at the age of 34. I had a degree in Sociology and had been involved in activist groups as a volunteer and organizer for many years, but my creative passion was music. I played in various punk bands for about 15 years, touring all over the United States and Western Europe. Aside from playing music, I wrote a zine (turned book) about Black punks & outsider artists called "Shotgun Seamstress" and was a columnist for "Maximum Rock'n'Roll" magazine. I also booked shows for touring bands fronted by women, non-binary and LGBTQ people under the name No More Fiction. Many of the shows were fundraisers for local social justice organizations. With help from friends, I organized musical instrument & equipment skillshares culminating in a festival of first-time band performances to encourage participation of underrepresented genders and sexualities in the local punk scene. Alongside all of this, I worked as a childcare provider, barista and art teacher to make ends meet.

Punk isn't about longevity or technique--it's about urgency and primal expression. Being in bands, making zines and organizing events helped me build the confidence to share my creative projects with others without worrying if they were good enough. But by the time I discovered clay, I was looking for a challenge. I wanted the chance to work on something for a sustained amount of time and become skilled, which is something that punk does not require. I also needed a fresh start. 

One of my co-workers told me about a wheel throwing class he was taking at community studio in town. I decided to try it and was instantly hooked. After about a year, I moved to a different studio where I was able to trade my labor for class time and clay. That is where I learned to make glazes for the studio, load and unload kilns and other tasks that would help me build my own studio practice. A couple of years later, after moving to Baton Rouge, I completed a one year post-baccalaureate program for ceramics at Louisiana State University. Other than that, I have embarked on a journey of self-education, attending workshops at craft schools, seeking out mentors and engaging in independent research. 

I use red stoneware clay, I carve as my main mode of surface decoration and I fire my work in an electric kiln. I work with red clay because I love the color and because it reminds me of ancient pots made of earthenware. I carve and stamp my surfaces for the same reason--these were the earliest modes of pottery decoration. It's fascinating to look at a pot made 2,000 years ago that still speaks to a modern sense of style and design. It tells us that there are certain forms, patterns, proportions and functions with nearly universal and lasting appeal--a way to observe the oneness of humanity.

Recently, I've felt guided by the urge to connect my work to a lineage of pottery making. At a moment when it seems that each individual artist seeks to be unique and original, I wonder what it may have been like to learn the methods of my ancestors. What might it have been like to create the same forms my grandmother made? Without an ancestral clay tradition, how do I attach myself to a clay lineage? Forming relationships with elder ceramicists such as David MacDonald and Jabu Nala and reading the history of Ladi Kwali at Abuja Pottery Center in the 1950s has helped ground my work in the wisdom of those who came before me.

The strength and meaning of my work only becomes evident through its incorporation into the lives of other people. While I make, I envision the pieces in homes, rather than the context of a gallery, and I think of the needs they might fill. Morning coffee or tea, a birthday or wedding gift, an urn for a deceased loved one, a small jug of water on your nightstand that you reach for at 3 am when you wake up thirsty. I love to see photos of my pottery in people's homes and I try my best to keep in touch with people who have my work. It's been fulfilling to notice that the people who are intuitively drawn to my work are people with whom I share values; the pottery just helps us find each other. It is for that reason that themes of temporal and human universality are important to my work.