Obituary : Siddig El Nigoumi

Emmanuel Cooper
Saturday 02 November 1996 01:02
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Like his pots, Siddig El Nigoumi was quiet and unassuming but full of conviction and strength.

Born in the Sudan, he developed an early interest in the malleable qualities of clay when, in the absence of conventional toys, he played with the highly plastic marl he discovered in swamp ponds by the side of the White Nile, as many children had done before him. A career as a potter did not follow immediately.

After receiving conventional teacher-training, Siddig worked for two years as Arabic Calligrapher for the Publications Bureau in Khartoum, an occupation which he enjoyed. The traditional forms and the discipline of the craft gave his work a powerful rhythmic sense, as well as an awareness of the importance of the placing of designs.

Inspired by the idea of becoming an artist, Siddig enrolled in a three- year course at the School of Art in Khartoum, during which time he began to specialise in pottery. A brief period of teaching followed until, in 1957, he was awarded a government grant to study ceramics at the Central School of Art in London. Afterwards, he returned to Khartoum where he was appointed deputy head of the ceramics department at the School of Art. During this time he married "Vicky" Vickery, a fellow student from the Central School of Art, and they started to raise their family.

Feeling that the opportunities for a creative potter in the Sudan were limited, Siddig, his wife and children moved to England in 1967. Here he faced the challenging but ultimately rewarding task of establishing himself and his work in a foreign country.

The family settled in Farnham and shortly afterwards Siddig became involved with the highly regarded ceramic course at what was then the Farnham School of Art - first as a technician, then as one of the distinguished band of part-time lecturers.

In the early 1970s Siddig was elected to membership of the Craft Potters Association, and became a regular exhibitor in galleries in London and elsewhere. His professional success was assured when in 1980 and 1981 the Victoria and Albert Museum acquired several of his pieces for its collection.

Despite being a highly skilled thrower, Siddig was attracted more to the slow and contemplative processes of handbuilding. Following his arrival in England, he made reduction-fired stoneware, with decorations based on the rich patterns of house decoration in Northern Sudanese Nubia. Its qualities recalled the subtle work carried out by Michael Cardew in West Africa a few years earlier. Siddig's main interest, however, lay in developing traditional African terracotta earthenwares.

All his pots were built by coiling and smoothing, or by pressing slabs of clay into plaster of Paris moulds. Some pieces were covered with a thin layer of slip made from Nile Valley clay, which produced a glowing rich orange-red colour. The slip was highly prized by Siddig who said it was irreplaceable.

Some surfaces were burnished by rubbing with a stone, and all were incised with a highly distinctive decoration which effortlessly merged sophisticated Western iconography with traditional African patterns. Landscapes often sported crisp drawings of aircraft or the assertive emblem of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, while others included delightful highly stylised animals or subtle repeating patterns. One dish in the collection of the V & A commemorates the "Great Royal Wedding" of 1981, the design incorporating a schematised scorpion and the Union flag.

Siddig was always willing to demonstrate and discuss his techniques with other potters, and enthusiasts watched enthralled as he slowly but methodically built up his pots and decorated them with beguiling skills. As a finale, on pots which had already been fired in the electric kiln, he would smoke the surface with a lighted taper of finely rolled newspaper, the flame licking the surface and depositing a thin but delicate mottled patterning, animating the pots with the fragrance of his native Africa.

Emmanuel Cooper

Siddig El Nigoumi, ceramicist: born 1 January 1931; married Eileen Vickery; died 10 October 1996.

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