If you haven’t heard much about Shawanda Corbett yet, you probably will soon. The Mississippi-born, Oxford, UK-based artist is rapidly reshaping the parameters of ceramic art – its history, cultural gravitas and relationship to the human body.
Corbett positions ceramics as an inherently interdisciplinary and cross-cultural medium encompassing film, dance, music, poetry and pottery. These “performative objects” speak across cultures, times and geographies, from pottery traditions in West Africa and Asia to Greek theatrical performances recorded on clay vessels. “I turned my ceramic practice into theory: how I react to spaces, how I react to music,” Corbett tells me over the phone. “It’s a type of structure that’s malleable, that can change depending on the space and the people I’m talking to.”
Corbett’s approach to clay is collaborative; she works with it, instead of making it work for her. “One of the great things about clay is that it has a memory. In western places that [teach] ceramics, we are taught to knock out the memory to make it what we want it to be. So it’s a power struggle,” she says. ‘I wanted to do something different. I wanted it to be more about really listening to what the clay wants to do.
Corbett describes herself as a “cyborg” artist. This term may conjure up images of tiny 1960s sci-fi movies and metal-clad robot men, but to Corbett (his love of sci-fi aside) it refers to anything that can improve human life. ‘It happened when I read Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto (1985). I wanted to use [the book] but with my point of view: a black, queer, disabled woman and all these other social identities that I have, whether they are decided or decided for me,” explains the artist, who was born with one arm and no legs. . “The terminology around disability or something like that has such a heavy history. And that’s something I don’t necessarily identify with. I would rather be called a cyborg.
The artist is pursuing a practice-oriented doctorate at the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford. His research focuses on ethics in AI, the relationship between the disabled body and the disabled body, and the meaning of a “whole body”. His studio days are experimental and wrapped in music, including by John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. “I like the complexity of jazz,” she says. “To the untrained ear, it may sound disorganized or free-form, even though it’s much more complex. It’s organized; being able to play like that takes a lot of skill. I have a playlist for each work. I never repeat a song twice. The artist’s affinity with music is deeply rooted in his childhood in Mississippi, where music was not just a part of life, but a soundtrack. “We had music for everything: to get in the mood, to have company or to clean up. I’m used to it, so I wanted it to be part of my practice.
Corbett cites his artistic influences with equal enthusiasm, from Ladi Kwali to Theaster Gates, Shōji Hamada to Kawai Kanjirō. But her voice reaches its highest level of fervor when talking about Magdalene Odundo, whom she first met when the Kenyan-born British artist was speaking at the 2012 Alabama Clay Conference. in the history of ceramics [was] all white,” she says. “I had never seen her work before, but when she started talking about her work, it made me feel so much better about the way I do things. When I build by hand, it’s from West Africa, that’s naturally what I do. People regard West African pottery as primitive, which it is absolutely not.
Corbett describes his throwing technique as a “hotch potch” of ever-changing approaches. “I watch other artists and how they throw and manipulate clay, because [they’re] so different, and sometimes their way of doing it is so much better than what I do,” she says. “It’s a very physical thing. And from a medical point of view, it can cause injuries if you do it too much in the same way. Because I do it with one hand, it’s about keep the muscles working evenly.
In January 2022, Corbett opened his first solo exhibition in the United States. “To the Fields of Lilac” at Salon 94 in New York (until March 5) is both an installation and a gathering “without stereotypes”. The exhibit is a set of 16 totem vessels of varying heights, shapes and glazes. Violet hues meet electric blue, some vessels stand upright, others lean to one side with their own minds. Each is named with a familiar phrase: do you see what i see; Stop all that slump, man; Just the blind leading the blind; Our freedom is not your absolute freedom (all works 2021). These anthropomorphic objects are based on groups of people, their glossy surfaces etched or marked with traces of the music Corbett listened to while she worked. The walls are lined with vibrant abstract paintings, punctuated by large-format photographs depicting the artist masked in engobe engraved with gestural lines.
‘I named the show ‘To the Fields of Lilac’ to signal a continuation or additional narrative that reflects on what happens beyond ‘Wade in the Water’, the spiritual song originally sung by the slaves in their quest for freedom, and thinking about how water became a sign of protection for slaves on their way to freedom,” says the artist, who also has works exhibited in “Body Vessel Clay.” at Two Temple Place in London and will hold a solo exhibition at Tate Britain in May 2022 as part of Art Now (opening May 29).
Freedom as a question mark – though historically charged and still debatable in a capitalist society – is deeply introspective for Corbett. “Freedom is self-love. It is always going against what is socially expected of you to do, be or say. This is how you receive love of yourself, and that’s the thing we don’t talk about. Behind a lot of my work, if not all of my work, there is freedom as a love story for oneself.
Shawanda Corbett, ‘To the Fields of Lilac’, through March 5, Salon 94, New York. salon94.com (opens in a new tab)
Corbett’s exhibition at Tate Britain for Art Now runs from 28 May 2022 to Sunday 4 September 2022. tate.org.uk (opens in a new tab)