A Silversmith Who ‘Wields That Hammer Like a Magic Wand’.
MANCHESTER, England — The intricate details of 19th- and 20th-century paintings were early influences for Ndidi Ekubia, who loved to look at paintings as a child in this industrial city. But she ended up with silver as her medium. “I’d go to museums and galleries and look at the work of the Cubists and the Impressionists, their brushstrokes and the movement they created,” said Ms. Ekubia, who was made an MBE (Member of the British Empire) for services to silversmithing in 2017.
The tiny details of those artworks have shaped her own work: functional yet highly textured vessels made with thousands of strikes from hammers of various sizes. Her creations are now in collections at museums such as the Victoria and Albert in London and the Ashmolean in Oxford, England. “I wanted to get out of Manchester, so when I finished school I enrolled in a B.A. in 3-D design at the University of Wolverhampton,” she said. “The first year and a half was all about technique — how to work metal, plastic and steel. We were allowed to watch the third-year students in action, and they were just so fearless in the way they worked materials.”
It was as she was shown a technique called repoussé, in which metal is shaped by hammering it from the reverse side, that Ms. Ekubia found her calling. “At first, I’d work with metal over pitch” — a thermal adhesive used to stabilize metal so it can be hammered — “but it was dirty and smelly, like tar, and was time consuming,” she said. “I then went on to making huge sandbags out of leather instead, to hammer the metal against.”
In 1995, during the final year of her degree studies, she and some other students staged a show at the Business Design Center, an exhibition venue in London. And it, in turn, led her to an artist’s residency at Bishopsland, a postgraduate center for silversmiths and jewelers in Reading, England, founded in 1993 by Penelope and Oliver Makower.
“I put some of my bigger pieces on her kitchen table, and she just smiled at me,” Ms. Ekubia said of her first meeting with Ms. Makower. “Ndidi is a great, great woman,” Ms. Makower said. “She has a very bubbly nature, and that came through with her work from the beginning. I remember when she was here, in 1996, we had Canon Keith Walker from Winchester Cathedral wanting a set in silver, so we had him to lunch with Ndidi, who had never worked in silver at that point, but she just got on with it. The commission was completed and very much admired.”
Ms. Ekubia said the request was for a small pitcher and bowl, to be used by priests to wash their hands during services. “So I went to the cathedral and just studied everything, all the details, old and new,” she said, referring to the medieval floor tiles, 14th-century carved wood seating, early 20th-century stained glass windows, and a contemporary Antony Gormley sculpture, “Sound II,” in the crypt. With Ms. Makower’s encouragement, Ms. Ekubia earned a master’s degree in what the Royal College of Art in London now calls Jewelry and Metals, and then began sharing a studio in the Farringdon area of the city. By 2003, she had moved to Cockpit Studios in the Deptford neighborhood, where the well-known gallerist Adrian Sassoon was introduced to her work; his gallery has been selling her pieces ever since.
“It was my now-retired colleague Clare Beck, hugely experienced in the craft field, who, about 20 years ago, told me we would be showing Ndidi’s work,” Mr. Sassoon wrote in an email. “We’ve since sold pieces to clients in the United Kingdom and the United States, but also in Monaco, France, Belgium and the Netherlands.” Ms. Ekubia returned to Manchester in 2018 and now has a workshop in an industrial building near the city center. The space is packed with the tools of her trade: dozens of hammers of various sizes, blowtorches, vices and huge blocks of wood. “Those two are driftwood,” she said, gesturing toward a couple of blocks. “That one my sister and I got from the back of the Victoria and Albert museum when they were sawing down trees. I covered the sawn-off ends in wax and let them dry out for a few months in a shed.”
Now, the blocks act as plinths for the large metal and wood forming tools over which she hammers flat sheets of silver — usually Britannia silver as the alloy, she said, “has strength, but softness” — to create cups, vases and bowls. Some are as small as an egg cup; other pieces are over a foot tall and more than 2.5 feet wide. Last year, she added jewelry to that list, when Melanie Grant asked her to make pieces for “Brilliant & Black,” a selling exhibition held at Sotheby’s London that featured the work of 21 designers. A breast plate-style necklace and two large cuffs were the results.
“All three had her trademark texture on velvety silver and they were wildly popular,” Ms. Grant, now the executive director of the Responsible Jewellery Council, wrote in an email. “Her work is sensual. It moves on the body. It undulates. She wields that hammer like a magic wand and phenomenal body sculpture is born. “There is a rhythm to it and she draws on her African heritage for inspiration, but most of all I like the fact that a softly spoken silversmith from Manchester is channeling such an exquisite talent.”
Some of Ms. Ekubia’s work is now featured in “Mirror Mirror: Reflections on Design at Chatsworth,” an exhibition that compares the work of 16 contemporary artists and designers with some of the design elements of the stately home and its gardens. The show is scheduled to run until Oct. Ms Ekubia’s vessels are exhibited in the State Closet, a small room that is dominated by a large 17th-century silver chandelier. “Ndidi’s work has the most incredible liquid surface,” said Alexandra Hodby, the estate’s senior curator of program, who co-curated the exhibition with Glenn Adamson, a writer and historian. “It was really important to include silver in the exhibition as it’s such an important material in this room, and her work really responds to the chandelier, which we know is from the late 1600s, and the mirrored wall. Her work has been quite instrumental in getting me to think about contemporary design.”
Recently, Ms. Ekubia has been working out how to make a silver teapot, a personal challenge she had not taken on before. But “big is what I love to do, that’s where my heart is,” she said, referring to the larger vessels she has created. “I am a very emotional person, and I think it does come through the work.”
This article appeared on 29th March 2023.
Written by Annabel Davidson.