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Folu Oyefeso

Unearthing Creativity: Exploring the Potentials of Clay in Dada Pottery Village, Ilorin

Pottery is a craft that has served human-kind since its earliest times. Our species learned early that when clay was wet, it was malleable and it could be molded into different shapes which served different uses. The craft developed as the human need for storage containers and dispensers grew, and before long they became a critical component of the culture. Over time, they made appearances during religious rites, weddings, burials, featured in daily cooking and household chores, and ornamental uses both indoors and outdoors.

We are not really sure when life started in Ilorin because it predates documentation and terracotta (pottery) work is likely to be just as ancient as the city. The Dada pottery community, a congregation of more than 100 women is located at the Okelele quarters in Ilorin East local government, Kwara State. They are the largest concentration of potters in the city and they are the source of most of the terracotta in and around Ilorin city.

mud house at dada pottery village, ilorin
Typical traditional building showing mud as an architectural medium

Terracotta holds cultural and historical significance in many African societies, and its importance in African homes can be attributed to various reasons. The traditional craftmanship involved in handcrafting these vessels take decades to master and the techniques are often passed down through generations, adding to the cultural identity the material represents. Some are symbolic, reserved for special rituals and religious rites that represent aspects of spirituality, fertility, protection and much more.

local nigerian kolo box
Local savings box/piggy bank 'kolo'

In terms of its practicality, terracotta has amazing thermal properties and can be used to cook and store food. Ornamentally, they can be fantastic tools of expression while simultaneously staying very functional. Clay flower pots retain water better than the plastic ones that have dominated the market, and this helps regulate ambient temperatures - a necessity in the West African climate. Apart from that, they give one a connection to the land and nature, making us feel grounded, and I find that essential as a cultural identity and necessary for our spiritual well-being as Africans. The material is so versatile and readily available, I wonder why we have opted to prioritize concrete in our building process.

potters of dada community, ilorin
The crown of an old tree provides needed shade for passing pottery knowledge down the generations

I visited Dada pottery to understand and push the boundaries of this material, and Alhaja Raliat Asaka, the head of the community gave me the privilege of her time and her knowledge. None of the other women would speak to you, all questions must go through her which I think is a tidy way of vetting who gets access. They keep their cards quite close to their chest and I think that is important for ownership rights.

The process begins by finding the clay, a lot of which is sourced in and around the community. The clay is allowed to dry and then it is pounded and sieved to remove impurities. It is important for high quality earthenware to be free of impurities because they form air pockets, which gives a higher chance of cracking during the firing process. The now homogenous clay is allowed to soak in water for a few days and eventually a paste of the correct consistency is formed.

Clay soil, the raw material of this craft, freely sourced and readily available
Clay soil, the raw material of this craft, freely sourced and readily available

The women of the Dada community use their hands and a mold (an already made pot) to form the round shapes of the pots, while smoothing tools are used to achieve a uniform outer texture. I found this interesting as many cultures around the world opt for potters wheels and other tools to achieve their desired effects. After the shape has been formed, they are left to bake in a crude kiln and then left in the sun to further strengthen the material. Broken pots are not wasted, they can be pounded back into clay powder and used again, so nothing is wasted. Everything from cookware, plates and pitchers, traditional money safes, water storage containers, dye pots, fermentation pots are created here but I believe they are just scratching the surface of their creativity.

pottery being baked next to an open fire
Freshly made pottery fired from the day before, crude and hard to scale

She mentioned that many of them are able to sustain themselves with this trade and have even been able to send their children to school from the industry. Some have bought houses and cars through it, and this was achieved at the grassroot level. She mentioned that they would like to acquire an industrial kiln, an infrastructural investment to enable them scale their business. Publicity about the community and their business would also be a massive help to increase patronage and business growth/opportunity, so please share this article with 3 people who will appreciate it. I also think a knowledge exchange program would elevate the industry as well, especially when all parties involved get value. They could gain new techniques on how to decorate, how to glaze, learn to make new shapes and use new tools, etc.

I patronized them a bit, bought a few flowerpots and some dining plates for my newly married friends and exchanged contact information. I was very thankful for the grace I was granted to be allowed into their humble community and learn about the age-old craft. Who would have ever thought, that an acre of dust and terracotta would be responsible for molding so many inspiring objects and stories.

dust and terracotta, fine art photography by folu oyefeso
Dust and Terracotta - Available as a fine-art photography print on art paper or accrylic, editions of 10.



I was there myself in the year 2005, as part of an academic excursion program. This brought back refreshing memories, and thanks for explicit details on the making process. Cheers!




Lovely and informative information. That’s one place I will love to visit.


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