A Life Journey Through Clay

I could connect to people whom I a priori had nothing in common with, simply because we were potters. We spoke the same language, the language of clay, which went beyond the borders within which we had been born.

Portrait of Bisila Noha: Photograph courtesy of Ida Riveros

As a mixed-race Spanish person, whose Spanishness is often questioned (the good ole question ‘but where are you really from?’ with which many BAME people will identify…), I have often felt stateless and embraced the idea of being a “citizen of the world”. 

I had never thought much of that feeling until I took up pottery and started traveling to discover pottery traditions in different countries. Meeting potters in Mexico, Italy, Armenia and Morocco made me realise that I had found a home. I could connect to people whom I a priori had nothing in common with, simply because we were potters. We spoke the same language, the language of clay, which went beyond the borders within which we had been born.

In the spring of 2017 I spent six weeks in Oaxaca, Mexico. There I volunteered with Innovando la Tradición (Innovating Traditions), an organisation that works with local potters to keep the tradition alive and bring tradition and “modernity” together. I was lucky to spend time with a lot of amazing potters from different villages, including Santa María de Atzompa and San Bartolo Coyotepec. 

On my first weekend there we went away for a couple of days for the first collective “sharing session”, a full-on weekend during which potters shared their experiences and challenges, to face and overcome together. One of the first activities we did that weekend was placing pots from all over the world and all different ages onto a world map. It was amazing, and somehow overwhelming and moving, to see that pots that may appear Mexican or Latin American, had in fact been made in African or Asian countries, and vice versa. And that’s the beauty of pottery, that it is so intertwined with human development and growth that we all, regardless of our location, came up with the same ideas: we could mould shapes with earth and water and these, if placed in fire, would harden and could be used for storage, etc. 

Clay has been with humans forever. It is part of who we are. 

Clay, to me, is that universal invisible thread that keeps us tethered and makes us all family. 

Clay is home.

My trip to Morocco in September 2019 brought this concept of home to another level. Here I was part of a Sumano workshop, a week-long stay in the pre Rif mountains, studying and practicing the pottery techniques of Mama Aïcha – the most amazing woman I have ever met, whose age is uncertain but might be somewhere between 80 and 90 years old.

For a week I, along with four other women (including, a friend from Seattle whom I had met at a residency in La Meridiana (Italy), and another whom I knew from London) stayed at Mama Aïcha’s home. A house up in a mountain where she has her studio and lives with one of her sons and his wife and child. It was an amazing experience not only because we got to see Mama Aïcha work, collect clay in the mountains with her and her donkey and meet other local craftspeople, but also because they made us feel at home. Within no time we were cracking jokes and laughing at each other at the dinner table, helping cooking and the sharing of life stories. All of this whilst not really speaking the same language, as Mama Aïcha speaks the Moroccan Arabic dialect, her family mostly french and us, English. And yet, we understood each other and through clay united. 

Mama Aïcha

Mama Aïcha’s techniques were very similar to what I had seen in Mexico. However, this time around was very different for me. The fact that I was in Africa; that I was hands-in-clay for five days, sitting on the floor, looking at Mama Aïcha’s hands to properly understand and absorbed what she was explaining in a language I couldn’t speak; and that we were part of the life circle of clay was a stepping point towards really feeling the urge to use the clay my parents had brought me from Equatorial Guinea.

Mama Aïcha had us burnishing pots for days, always saying “a bit more a bit more”. We joked how tedious burnishing was and how we could understand how Japanese crafts students are being made by their teachers do the same task over and over again for years until they master it and can move on onto another task. Burnishing. No-one wanted to hear of it ever again. And yet something in me made me bring home two stones (approved by Mama Aïcha!). I wasn’t sure why or what for, since I don’t hand-build and “things are done differently back home” and it was just an anecdote. And yet, fast forward five months, back in London I found myself burnishing my pieces to make sure they were properly sealed and to see if I could get that special shine Mama Aïcha’s pots had. Maybe mine could look a bit more “African” despite their being fired in an electric kiln. 

Baney Clay Collection, Bisila Noha

When I started working on my Baney Clay: An Unearthed Identity, the first thing I did was to bring the pots I had made in Morocco to the studio to somehow invoke Mama Aïcha’s spirit and knowledge. All the pieces I made – either thrown or coiled – I burnished. It made me feel so happy, African, a potter. 

The Baney Clay project would have never happened without Mama Aïcha. The trip to Morocco would have never happened without those prior to it, especially the one to Mexico. And none of those trips and amazing life experiences would have happened were it not for the Clay. 

My practise keeps changing and surely the role that clay has in my life will change as time passes. However, the feeling of belonging that I now feel thanks to clay is part of who I am and I hope that will never change.

Baney Clay Collection, Bisila Noha
Baney Clay Collection, Bisila Noha

** Bisila’s Baney Clay: An Unearthed Identity body of work will be part Thrown Contemporary next group exhibition, Gatherers, opening online on May 16th.

Words: Bisila Noha

Bisila’s Instagram can be found here.

About the Artist:

Bisila Noha is a Spanish London-based ceramics artist. With her work she aims to challenge Western views on art and craft; to question what we understand as productive and worthy in capitalist societies; and to reflect upon the idea of home and oneness pulling from personal experiences in different pottery communities. 

Her work is primarily wheel thrown, with the distinctive addition of marbled slip decoration. However, for her last project, Baney Clay: An Unearthed Identity, she set herself a new challenge by processing and using new clay bodies and mixing throwing and coiling. 

Strongly influenced by Japanese ceramics, she makes ‘simple’ ceramic pieces that she uses either as canvas for abstract landscapes or as the embodiment of herreflections and personal life stories.

With a background in Translation and International Relations, Bisila also co-directs Lon-art Creative, an arts organisation that offers a platform for everyone to create, collaborate and reflect upon social issues through the arts.

All photographs (except for the first image) courtesy of Bisila Noha