Many Nigerians are oblivious to the story of the woman whose picture adorns the back of 20 naira note they spend on a daily. At the back of the 20 naira note is Ladi Kwali’s picture, a celebrated potter who hailed from the northern part of Nigeria.
Ladi Kwali was born in the village of Kwali, which is located in the Gwari region of present day Abuja, where pottery was indigenous female tradition.
Kwali who grew up in a family in which womenfolk made pots for a living, learnt to make pottery as a child from her aunt.
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Kwali’s younger brother, Mallam Mekaniki Kyebese, said: “Even in the early years of pottery making, Ladi Kwali excelled in the crafts and her wares were often sold even before they were taken to the markets”
She produced pottery pieces that were influenced by the Gbagyi tradition during her first professional years.
With the help of a famous English studio potter, Michael Cardew, Kwali came to international prominence for her talents in the 1950s. Cardew, who was appointed to the post of pottery officer in the department of commerce and industry in 1951, launched the Abuja Pottery Training Centre along with Kwali in 1952 and spent the following fifteen years teaching and learning from Nigerian potters.
Kwali would later join the Abuja pottery and become its first female potter. She later became an instructor, Ladi’s pots were noted for their beauty of form and decoration. The Emir of Abuja, Alhaji Suleiman Barau acquired several pots made by Ladi. In the palace of the Emir
was where Michael Cardew saw Ladi’s work in 1950. Ladi Kwali would later become prominent after this discovery by Carew.
Her pots became art objects and were also featured in international exhibitions of Abuja pottery organised by Cardew in 1958, 1959 and 1962. Her pottery was also displayed during Nigeria’s independence celebrations in 1960.
Kwali and Cardew toured America in 1972, and at the Berkeley Galleries in London, her works was shown to great acclaim. Her works – glazed dishes, bowls and beakers, which she created with stylised animal sgraffito, were the works for which she was best known. These works were a great asset in the popularity of Abuja pottery beyond the shores of Africa.
Below is the list of her awards and achievements:
Kwali had been honoured in many ways.
In 1962, she was awarded an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire).
In 1977, Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria awarded her an honorary doctoral degree.
The Nigerian government awarded her with highest national honour for academic achievement, Nigerian National Order of Merit Award.
In 1981, she also received the national honour of the Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON).
A major street in Abuja is named after her. The street is called Ladi Kwali road.
The Abuja Pottery was renamed the Ladi Kwali Pottery in the early 1980s.
Her picture adorned the back of the Nigerian 20 naira note, making her the first Nigerian woman to be on a naira note.
After Cardew died the previous year, Kwali died on August 12, 1984 at the age of 59 in Minna.