Lillian Barongo Ayienga is as much an outstanding ceramicist as she is a chemist, or perhaps a five-star chef who mixes all sorts of ingredients to create delicious dishes that we love to eat. Through hours, days and months of trial-and-error experimentation using Kenyan rock and soil – even ash – from the Great Rift Valley, what Ayienga has succeeded in creating is a feast for the eyes.

Her many months of trekking around Kiambu and Nakuru counties, collecting bags of ground materials and then working with several local research agencies, have borne much ‘fruit’ in the form of more than 50 indigenous glazes. A sizeable sampling of these glazes is currently on display in the upstairs exhibition space at Alliance Francaise (AF) in Nairobi. They have been used in all sorts of functional ceramic items. The show itself has the rather prosaic title of ‘Kenyan Glazes – Functional Uses’, but that should not put off the public from seeing an exceptional exhibition that illustrates the ingenuity, perseverance and patient persistence of this talented Kenyan woman.

Limited choice leads to invention

The items on show – multiple pots, vases, plates and tea sets, as well as beads, candleholders and several larger-scale ceramic ‘installations’, were all made by Ayienga, either by using a ceramicist’s wheel or by hand, using the coiling technique. After these had all been baked for many hours in Kenyatta University kilns, she covered them with a variety of her freshly invented glazes, all of which had been tested to ensure that they do not contain undesirable substances, such as lead or cadmium, both of which are carcinogenic.

‘Kenyan Glazes’ may not sound like an exciting show to see: “Just a bunch of shiny pots,” you might think. But Ayienga’s exhibition reflects years of her working as an artist-ceramicist, wishing all along that she had access to many more shiny and colorful finishes (which is what glazes essentially are).

“The only glazes available were from abroad and were quite expensive,” says Ayienga. “In addition, they are not always available since they are imported and there is not necessarily a high demand for them locally,” adds the woman who is considered a pioneer in the field of ceramic arts.

 Missing more colours

Wishing that she could find indigenous glazes made locally from homemade materials, she enrolled in a Master’s degree programme at Kenyatta University, where she also got her BA degree in fine art, to try to make them herself. The ‘missing’ glazes became the ‘problem’ she set out to solve. Art faculty members advised her to stick with the two counties in the Great Rift Valley, where she would be assured of a wide variety of volcanic rock.

Ayienga set out with a slew of gunny sacks and shovels to collect the soils and rocks that she would subsequently take for testing and then for pounding into super-fine powders. After that, she would mix and test the liquefied powders at various temperatures for different lengths of time, to see which powders could be used as glazes. “Some were immediately discarded as they didn’t even stick to the clay,” she recalls.

Ultimately, her painstaking efforts to test indigenous rock and soil types in order to discover (or invent) compounds that could be used to glaze her elegant, shapely and utilitarian ceramics finally paid off: Her exhibition at Alliance Francaise not only includes the end products, meaning her multi-coloured, multi-textured cups, pots and plates, but also more than a dozen of the actual rocks that she succeeded in transforming into glazes. Above each dish of rock she has displayed a sampling of her tests, allowing us to see some of the colour variations that were effected either by the amount of time she left her clay in the kiln or by the few additives that she mixed in small quantities with the powdered rock, such as cobalt oxide, copper carbonate or manganese dioxide.

A book that gives you the full picture

Ayienga’s exhibition actually reveals only a fraction of the work that went into her research – work that ultimately earned her a Master’s degree and compelled her to self-publish a fascinating book, titled Natural Glazes.

In addition, her exhibition has earned her widespread respect for behaving not only like an artist but also like an experimental scientist, reminiscent of a Thomas Edison or a Marie Curie. Through trial and error over an extended period of time, Ayienga deduced that there were indeed a wide range of local materials that could be transformed into beautiful glazes to be used not only by ceramicists in Kenya but all over the world. In every sense of the word, Ayienga’s work has been groundbreaking.

Note: None of Ayienga’s ceramics on display at the Alliance Francais are for sale, but they can be ordered at www.barongoanienga.com. The exhibition runs until the end of August 2016.