“Fire and water is all I need”: Tracing the elemental creativity of Ndidi Ekubia

For Ndidi Ekubia, silversmithing has come to mean the channelling of emotion and harnessing the power of elemental forces. We spoke to her about the origin and development of these iconic characteristics.

The start of lockdown was an uncertain and unsettling time and to make things worse there was a fire in the building where Ndidi’s workshop is. “I did of course manage to get a few days [of work] in [after the fire],” she says with a hint of rebellion in her voice. “The power was off but that’s OK, all I need is fire and water.” Being able to make is part of who she is and separating the silver from Ndidi is like separating the clouds from the sky in her hometown of Manchester; they will always return to each other.  “I’d been dreaming about hammering,” she says. “I needed to get back in the workshop”.

Thankfully, with her son and daughter returning to school and more time for work, Ndidi has managed to get back to making beautiful sculptural silver pieces full-time. The autumn, however, has proved particularly challenging, only because the dam on her ideas and creativity had suddenly lifted; there’s so much to express and so many time-limiting boundaries. But that’s her character. She wants to find limitations not be constrained by them, and her silver is an expression of this, pushed to the edge of stability, on the verge of yielding to a final hammer blow.

MAKER SPOTLIGHT

Born in Manchester to Nigerian parents, Ndidi trained at the RCA, is a Liveryman of the Goldsmiths’ Company and is represented in the Goldsmiths’ Company Collection. She was awarded an MBE for services to silversmithing in 2013.

For Ndidi, no idea is too big or too energetic, although the experiences of the last few months have compressed her usual intensity for creativity. “Just before lockdown I was about to start working on two large pieces in silver. I’m imagining them to be vessels as they can do so many things. I want to communicate tranquillity at the base and then chaos bursting out over the rim to fall back in on itself.” A sign of the times maybe, but there’s also congruence with who she is as a maker: “At the moment a lot of things have been going on, so when I get the opportunity to make I want to convey the energy that I have and I want my designs to reflect the emotion that’s in me – I know how to move the metal so I will use this knowledge to move it how I want and express how I’m feeling.” There’s an almost elemental force in her words that no one would challenge. Listening to her instils a sense of this and it’s something that permeates through her life experiences, from visiting her late grandmother’s village in Nigeria to the canals of Manchester.

Her workshop serves as a relic to a time when Manchester was the international centre of the world’s cotton industry. It’s an old mill on the edge of town that she moved to in November 2018, now sharing the building with a variety of businesses from textile artists and musicians, to dancers, woodworkers, blacksmiths and photographers: “It’s taken a lot of time to make the space work for me, but now, it’s somewhere I love being”.  The time away from the studio has been hard, but it’s given her the space to be a bit more speculative and explore new ideas and new work. “I want to restart,” she says “- not from scratch – but just hit reset”. She describes her relationship with her hometown as love/hate – full of culture and access to art and museums where she would sit for hours drawing as a girl, but also overshadowed at times by the vestiges of industrial decline. “I found it fascinating,” she tells me, “but I didn’t really know how to interpret what I was seeing when I was young.”

i Beakers by Ndidi - Alun Callender Photography.

Part of this process of learning to interpret was found through her family, who also have creative spirit; her brother works in the music industry and she remembers her late grandmother’s house in Nigeria peppered with rich cultural and artistic artefacts. Ndidi visited Nigeria once when she was ten and it had a profound effect on her: “Everything was so different. I remember going to my grandmother’s house which was a clay construction; inside there was a such a rich sense of artistry in the way it was presented to the senses, with carved objects of dark wood and a very particular smell, which, if I think about, takes me straight back to that time and place.”

Ndidi’s mother always encouraged her pursuit of art, and didn’t mind what she did for a career, as long as she was happy. A three-year course in 3D design at Wolverhampton Polytechnic was followed by a year at Bishopsland (1995-1996) – a residential learning centre for aspiring silversmiths – where she picked up her first clients. And finally, the MA course at the Royal College of Art (1996-1998). Her first pieces after graduating from the RCA included a silver peanut kernel which sold instantly. “The more I made the more exposure I had, and the work would sell.”

Of course that’s not as easy as it sounds, and can be a long process with clients often making an initial connection, then building on their appreciation of the work over time before proceeding to acquire something else which suits their taste. It wasn’t just those first clients that understood her work, by this point, her mum was probably her biggest fan.  “She knew I was happy making things and that’s all that mattered”. It was then no surprise, she was encouraged to get a workshop, immediately. Her biggest influence in this decision was Onno Boekhoudt (1944-2002), a visiting lecturer at the RCA. Ndidi remembers his “amusing yet intense critiques” and his bold style which spoke to her through a “sculptural language”.

i Wine Cooler, 2007, Ndidi Ekubia – commissioned by the Goldsmiths’ Company

To appreciate her workshop today, knowledge of her previous ones is essential – but not just for the practical reasons. Although silversmithing is seen as a solitary profession, it is the memories of the people that she has worked alongside that punctuate her life as a maker. Her first workshop was in Mount Pleasant, Clerkenwell, which she hired with a friend who made jewellery – the year was 1998. They got to know the owner of the building, “an old Jewish man who we’d chat to during a lull in the hammering. I made him a ceremonial Yiddish cup to use at family occasions. Being a silversmith allows you to leave physical, tangible evidence of a relationship that doesn’t fade with time.”

In 2002, Ndidi moved to East Dulwich in London, where she lived above her studio, which used to be old stables. “This was next door to a Russian lady, a ceramicist who used to throw tactile earthenware and an extremely talented German furniture maker who could lend his hand to anything from bar venue installations to domestic furniture,” she says. “What was really cool though was that I could make as much noise as I wanted to.” From there on out, the amplifier was always dialled up to 11, and this meant mastering her craft.

i Inside Ndidi's workshop

Ndidi explains, “When I start a new piece, I still get the same excitement and adrenalin rush from when I first started out.” She describes making as “a meditative process that you have to be ready for.” From a paper design, she will start to make the main components of the piece. For a vessel or a vase, this means raising (a technique whereby sheet metal is first depressed into a hollowed block of wood or stump, then raised from the outside on a steel stake) the shape, constantly referring back to the design. Once raised, she will sometimes put it to one side, wait and come back to it later with renewed perspective. “Often,” she says, “the shapes and designs are pushed into the blank form – sometimes there is resistance as if the material is moved. My ultimate intention is to achieve a continuous flow around the three-dimensional object [being created], so it seems never-ending.”

My ultimate intention is to achieve a continuous flow around the three-dimensional object, so it seems never-ending.

But even as a master silversmith Ndidi still finds some things challenging. “Soldering is the most difficult thing – it makes me so tense.” Joining metal through welding, sometimes can’t be escaped and she’s currently working on a box to practice these skills. She pauses when we return to speaking about where she wants to go with her making post lockdown. “It’s quite hard to explain my current designs, some of which are still influenced by where I live – Manchester still has an edge to it.” It’s at the edges of life where we find interest and meaning – something that has come to influence Ndidi’s work and which was brought to the surface when visiting the Whitworth in 2019, a popular gallery of modern art that’s part of Manchester University.

i Beaker, 2013, Ndidi Ekubia – commissioned by the Goldsmiths’ Company

The headline exhibition on display was, ‘Ibrahim Mahama: Parliament of Ghosts’, a major installation for that year which reflected on the half-forgotten history of Ibrahim Mahama’s home country of Ghana and its transition into an independent country. The Whitworth described the exhibition as a “haunting assemblage of lost objects,” from faded railway sleepers and government archives to scrapped school furniture, photography, sculpture, painting and film. The smell of the dark hardwoods, the colours, the patterns, the raw expressive expanse of life and culture brought her back to when she visited her late grandmother’s as a child. “There was even a video of metalsmiths hammering,” she remembers, seeing a part of herself and her own memories reflected in this rich sensory environment.

Strip back life to the elemental needs, the physical and emotional responses and we start to get closer to understanding Ndidi’s work as a master silversmith. Afterall, fire and water is all she needs.

Back in the workshop, behind the deafening sound of hammer strikes, is an extremely affable, passionate and family oriented person, who is also concerned with of how best to decorate her new home: “I’m getting a bit obsessed with the design,” she confesses with a chuckle. Just don’t try to stop her.

 


Authors: Curtis McGlinchey | Photo Credit: Alun Callender, Sophie Mutevelia

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MAKER SPOTLIGHT

Born in Manchester to Nigerian parents, Ndidi trained at the RCA, is a Liveryman of the Goldsmiths’ Company and is represented in the Goldsmiths’ Company Collection. She was awarded an MBE for services to silversmithing in 2013.