Performance pottery

12th September 2019

News, Student news

Following a sell-out performance at London’s Serpentine gallery, Wadham DPhil student Shwanda Corbett (Fine Art, 2016) talks about her passion for ceramics and performance art.

Shawanda, who joined Wadham in 2016 to do her Masters, is currently studying for a doctoral degree in Fine Art at the Ruskin School of Art and Wadham College.

In the performance ‘Blackbird in Mississippi’, the protagonist, haar wese, played by Shwanda, time travels to Mississippi where music offers her a voice in her quest to find placement in displacement. Created from the perspective of a black woman with a disability, Shwanda draws parallels between a slave’s voyages on the underground railroad to her own journey for rehabilitation.

This performance was a result of collaboration with other artists, including her dancer/choreographer brother Albert, and musician and sonic artist, Andrea Fortier.

“I love working with other artists. I have the skeleton of what I want to do and then I learn how everyone else processes my creativity and the production evolves – it is very exciting. Working with Andrea who is classically trained, we explore how sound travels in space, bending sound so that the ear thinks one thing when hearing another. The instrument sounds like a voice and is pushed past its traditional limits.”

Wearing a porcelain slip face mask for the performance is once way in which Shwanda incorporates ceramics into her practice. “It is also partly the result of an allergy to make up and partly that I did not want to conceal facial expression with a real mask,” she laughs. “At first the mask is stiff and tight on my face but as the performance continues, cracks come through so it’s a sort of recording of the face and expressions.”

Ceramics does not give the full experience - performance does what ceramics cannot

Shwanda Corbett

Growing up in Mississippi watching her artist mother painting and drawing, Shwanda avidly read books about the old masters and took up ceramics at school. She moved to New York to continue her passion for ceramics before coming to Wadham.

Having only one hand has not made pottery an easy choice.  “It is hard,” she admits. “I watched a lot of Japanese potters – they would throw vessels upside down and so I tried that. I wasted a lot of clay – the first time I did wheel throwing, the clay flew off the wheel!” But Shwanda has developed a technique using her arm to push up the clay and has mastered trimming and turning.

She worked as a production potter for a while. “It is repetitive but you learn to understand the behaviour of clay. Each pot has its own personality and each bag of clay has a memory of its own – the process of each pot is important, the end result, less so.”

The desire to combine ceramics with performance came from a variety of influences. “I’m a big fan of the Bauhaus movement and particularly Oskar Schlemmer” (the German painter, sculptor, designer and choreographer associated with the Bauhaus school). “I thought, I could do that!” So while working towards her Master’s degree in Fine Art at Wadham Shwanda started to incorporate music and dance into her ceramics work.

Reading A Cyborg Manifesto by Donna J. Haraway also proved a major influence over Shwanda’s work. In replacing disability theory with cyborg theory, Shwanda’s practice is challenging her to be the primary maker and performer in her art. Her practice-led DPhil focuses on the relationship between differently-abled body and abled body as cyborgs, asking what is a complete body. Her performances incorporate her ceramics practice, where the human body, architecture and dance leave their traces on her pottery vessels and surfaces.

Shwanda admits to nervousness associated with the making and performing of her shows; “but I do very much enjoy it, especially the dance. Ceramics does not give the full experience - performance does what ceramics cannot.”