Photographs by Jackie Zhao
Tope Pottery is located on a stretch of open land on the outskirts of Nairobi, in a place with lush flora and vibrant, rust-colored dirt. I arrived on a “boda”, short for boda boda, a motorcycle taxi that serves as one of the major forms of transportation in East Africa. As I waved the boda off at the end of the driveway, I entered a clearing where a few houses stood, made from corrugated metal. I heard machines whirr and the sawing of wood. The potters were building display stands for the upcoming craft fair in Karura Forest, Nairobi, where over eighty local vendors would display their goods for sale.
Grace and John opened Tope Pottery in 2011 when John’s former ceramics studio closed. Tope, pronounced “toh-pay” is derived from the Swahili word Matope, meaning soil. The studio employs four potters in total, who create an impressive quantity of pottery that proliferates throughout numerous shops, homes, and restaurants in Nairobi. Tope Pottery takes on many custom orders and works with local clients to create unique pieces for their settings.
I spent some time with Charles, the head potter at Tope Creations, when I visited the workshop. Charles specializes in design - focusing his time on glazing and decorating the pottery. The three other potters who work at Grace Tope include Bernard the claymaker, Mwagi, and Livingston.
Charles is potter by day, and in his time outside the workshop he is also a mason in building construction - he works with glass, tiles, and roofing. He has an affinity for exploring materiality, and explained to me the process of repurposing a wine bottle by turning it into usable stemware. Recently, he has been so busy with pottery he hasn’t found the time to work on many projects outside of clay.
Charles chatted with me as he dipped bowls in buckets of glaze and the kiln fired pieces for the fair. He told me that over twenty boxes packed with dozens of pieces would go to the craft fair, and he was finishing up a few final bowls. Tope Pottery will be one of eighty vendors who plan to exhibit work at the craft fair hosted by Biz Baz Events. This biannual event brings together people from all over the city to appreciate the innovation of craft and enjoy live entertainment including local DJ sets, food stalls, and numerous children's events.
Tope Pottery specializes in handmade plateware, ranging from mugs to bowls, plates, water jars, teapots, and more. They are renowned in Nairobi for handmade ceramic plateware, and frequently receive commissions from local restaurants for large quantity orders.
Many of the Tope Pottery pieces feature designs of plants and animals that are native to Sub-Saharan Africa, including the guinea fowl and the Baobab tree. An iconic technique that Charles employs in his designs is the subtraction of silhouettes from glaze, thereby highlighting in negative space recognizable characteristics of native species and decorative motifs.
Grace and John currently offer classes at their workshop for people looking to make pottery in Nairobi, and they plan in the future to expand to a larger location to house their practice.