CERAMICS | PROFILE
Best known for his stoneware sculptural vessels and porcelain footed bowls and dishes reminiscent of Lucie Rie’s, appreciation for the work of Abdo Nagi is growing. His colour palette of unmistakably MiddleEastern deep turquoise, subtle blues, lush greens and yellows, inspired by the landscape and seascape of his native Yemen, mark him out as a unique ceramic artist.
One of ten children, Abdo Abdulla Nagi was born in 1941 in the remote village of Shuhali, Ibb province, in North Yemen. At the age of six he became a goat herdsman. It was then that his artistic senses were stimulated as he became absorbed by the shapes, colours and textures of the spectacular rock-strewn landscape. Impressions, he later wrote, ‘which cry out to be registered and shared with those who have a feeling for beautiful things.’
In 1954, aged just 13, Nagi left home and went to the British Colony of Aden. There he worked for Arab families and from 1959 as a housekeeper for a succession of British expatriates, returning home brief ly in 1962 to marry his childhood sweetheart Nadia. John Ireland, Nagi’s employer from 1965, was to prove helpful in guiding him on English life, its manners and language and it was through John Ireland, as the British withdrawal from Aden drew closer, that Nagi came to the UK in 1967, to be joined by his wife some three years later. GROWING POTENTIAL Having been installed in the garden f lat at the rear of Ireland’s house in Letchworth Garden City, Nagi enrolled on a catering course at the local technical college and also completed an A Level in Art at Hitchin College. Later he secured a technician’s post in the same art department at what is now North Hertfordshire College. Here, from 1975, Nagi’s sketched memories of his Yemeni childhood found renewed expression in ceramics. Another A Level qualification soon followed and by 1978 he had moved to a house of his own in Letchworth and converted the garden f lat into a pottery studio.
Like all beginners, Nagi’s first efforts at firing were predictably unsatisfactory. Patiently, over the years, he built up a series of glazing methods to enable the firing process to be effective and the colour range richer and more interesting. Having decided on a mode of working that combined creative development and economic stability, Nagi’s next objective was the development of his Arabic designs into functional pottery for the British domestic market or, in his words, ‘combining my own culture with the specific demands of another.’
At this time Nagi also drew inspiration from the modernist works of Hans Coper and Lucie Rie and in particular began to experiment with and modify Rie’s glaze recipes, especially on white clay bodies. He established an attractive glaze using the double-dip method – tenmoku base and a silicon carbide/wood ash mix, producing a mottled blue/pink on a dark brown ground, with patches of tenmoku variation throughout the surface. Apart from basic recipes, Nagi was constantly experimenting in a way that he considered necessary to grow his potential. ‘Abdo was obsessed with his work,’ writes his wife Nadia, ‘regularly staying in the studio until very late. When he’d eventually get back, I’d always know if a firing had gone well or not by the look on his face!’
His decision in 1984 to study for a degree in ceramics at Middlesex Polytechnic further enabled Nagi to develop creatively without the constraints of having to sell in the marketplace and, according to his spring term report for 1985, to direct his ‘full attention to freer areas of expression and experimentation with clay.’ This experience changed Nagi’s outlook in profound ways.
‘Nagi was a significant ceramic artist and a modest, caring and charismatic man whose friendship was cherished by all who knew him… in his ceramics he speaks to us still’ John Ireland in his obituary for the British-Yemeni Society
INTERNATIONAL REPUTATION A successful degree show in 1988 at The Mall Galleries, London, led to further exhibitions at private galleries and public institutions. In 1990 Nagi took part in the Crafts Council’s touring exhibition Diverse Cultures and was invited to show work at the British Museum’s Yemenis in Britain exhibition in 1997. His work was also included in an exhibition at the British Ambassador’s residence in Paris in 1998. Three years earlier, Nagi had won first prize for ceramics at the International Crafts Festival in Nyiregyhaza, Hungary. His international reputation was growing and his work was steadily being acquired for both public and private collections.
Closer to home, Nagi enjoyed a long association with Letchworth Museum, which hosted his first major solo show Abdo Nagi: An Exhibition of Pottery in the Arabic
50 Ceramic Review | January/February 2019