Karen Smith is the founder and executive director of We Wield the Hammer, a metalsmith training program for women and girls of African descent. (@wewieldthehammer)
In September 2022, a group of twenty-five Black jewelry designers were exhibited as Brilliant & Black at Sotheby’s in London.1 Among them was a gifted silversmith, Ndidi Ekubia from Manchester, England. Her sculptural works have been installed or exhibited in many collections, including at the Victoria and Albert Museum. She was invited to create wearable art pieces for the show by the curator Melanie Grant. As one of the metalsmiths showcased in this exhibit, I was both humbled and entranced by her work and her spirit. In July 2023 I sat down with Ekubia, who spoke at length about tools, making, artistry, and moving through heartbreak.
Karen Smith: So nice to speak with you again, Ndidi!
Ndidi Ekubia: You too, Karen.
KS: I always ask people: Have you always been a creative?
NE: No, not really. I was always interested in art. I used to visit a lot of museums when I was younger, just take myself along there. I wanted to go to university though I knew wasn’t very “academic” with my other studies. I had an amazing art teacher in high school and he was really enthusiastic about what he taught. We did screen printing and photography, all sorts of things. And I quite enjoyed it, putting things together and learning about art. As far as metal is concerned, I didn’t get into metal properly for a bit; I had a little experience in high school when a jeweler came along and showed us a couple of techniques. Then I went on to do art history and then to apply to university.
I did a Bachelor Honors degree first, in 3D design. We were taught things in metal, plastics, wood—everything. I quite enjoyed hammering metal, copper mostly at first and gilded metal. I really enjoyed pushing metal, and gradually the pieces got quite big and I loved it. With copper you can sort of like push it and it looks like skin almost. Then I’d planish it so smooth, putting lines in it with chasing tools. [sighs] I spent a lot of time in the soundproof room, just getting mad with metal!
I didn’t do my master’s until another year after finishing my degree. I went to a place called Bishopsland Educational Trust and a did a residency for a year.2 I was the only silversmith; the others were jewelers. And then, at Penelope Makower’s insistence, I applied for a master’s at Royal College of Art in London and did a two-year program.3
KS: Were your parents supportive of this “nontraditional” way of making a living?
ND: My mom did not understand it [laughs]. But, she never stopped me. She was quite happy that I was going to get an education, that I was at university. To be honest, she didn’t care as long as I was working and getting on with it. She was quite a hard worker and I have adopted that ethic. Also, I’m a silversmith now but back then I was doing all sorts of jobs! You have to support yourself so I wasn’t scared of doing any job as long as I could buy hammers and metal. [laughs] I wasn’t a girl who was buying shoes or cared about getting her hair done, but as far tools and materials? Yeah. She understands more of what I do now. Back then she didn’t get it but she supported me as long as I was happy. And that’s always a bonus, isn’t it? As a maker, you’re always thankful that you’re doing something that you really want to do.
KS: What was the residency like?
ND: The thing about going to a place like Bishopsland is they actually taught us how to plan ahead, how to budget. You plan your year, what shows you’re doing. I also went to Carpet Arts, which is another place where I’ve rented a workshop. They had business support and they also remind you that you need to know what you’re doing and what you’re doing next.
KS: So, you have had built-in support and mentorship from the beginning?
ND: Yeah. Before I went to Bishopsland, I was reading a book on how to run a business as a craftsperson! So, I was trying to do it like that. It was much easier for me to have someone to say, “Actually, this is how it works in the real world.” Before I went there, I was trying to apply to galleries and they would look at the work and the photography and go, “Hmm, brilliant stuff but we don’t know what to do with it, we don’t know how to sell it!” It wasn’t until much later that I met people who really knew what they were doing in that area. My family still think it’s weird that I “make”; they think it’s not normal. When I went to university, there were a lot of Black people doing law so they thought I was kind of crazy! [laughs]
KS: Are there many women of African descent in the trade in UK?
ND: Not really. I haven’t met as many; there are more now than ever. There are a lot more jewelers that I’ve noticed and they’re amazing makers. Then, I stuck out like a sore thumb most of the time. It didn’t really bother me too much, to be honest. I think it’s about making money, actually; generally, people don’t see makers making money. Or if they do, they’re teaching and doing lots of other things to make their businesses work. It’s not easy for any maker: it’s difficult to make a living, from making stuff and selling it. It’s become more popular now than when I was coming along.
KS: It’s become more popular but it seems to me that there are more jewelers than anything else.
ND: Jewelry is smaller, you can get away with using smaller materials, smaller hammers. Silversmithing is a little bit more difficult to do as a maker and to make money as well. You can sell it as art but it’s not that easy. When looking around trade shows, like say Goldsmiths’ Fair in London, most of the silversmiths were men. That’s not to say that there weren’t lady silversmiths because there were; if you look at history books, they were there. But often they’d had children or were teaching and didn’t have the same avenues to build their careers.
KS: It’s fascinating to me that there aren’t as many women working as silversmiths and there are so few Black women doing it.
ND: Well, one, I think it’s quicker to make a smaller item. Two, the tools for the sort of smithing I do are very specialized so it’s a matter of collecting those tools. Also, the way I hammer is very physical and you have to do it constantly to raise material. So, I think jewelers are very clever at using methods they learn and applying them to their work and that’s more economical; it makes more sense as a business. That’s what I think it boils down to. I am not a jeweler—I will always say that. In fact, doing Black & Brilliant was really hard. I made a lot of samples of what I wanted to do; my confidence was low. The pieces the curator was drawn to were more like my normal silversmithing, big and solid and more of the manipulation of the metal in smaller pieces. I’ve been working on some jewelry pieces since, so I don’t feel that horrible feeling I had when trying to work towards the exhibition. It was awful. But I got better at the end.
KS: I cannot believe that! The work was so beautiful.
NE: Oh dear. It was more like what I do day-to-day, just a smaller version. Also, the weight of it was heavy, it was chunky. Also, it was unisex! Anybody could wear it, which I loved. I’m doing more pieces like that now; let’s see what I come up with.
KS: Was your insecurity because you were working smaller or because you were showing with jewelry designers and jewelers? I know personally how insecurity works for me: I’m not trained, I’m not renowned, and I always compare myself to people who are formally trained because I place a lot of value on formal training. You are formally trained and successful already!
NE: I didn’t really look into the other jewelers before I did the exhibition. I knew it was going to be high-end, I knew there was going to be a lot of jewels and gold. In my mind, I’m “just” using silver. I don’t do jewels. I do work in gold but not like that. But in my mind, I thought, What am I doing here? Coming away, the feedback and appreciation about the work—and the pieces all sold, which was lovely—and the way everybody in that group represents themselves, I just loved that. I had never been in an exhibition with all POC; that was the first time for me. I have been in an exhibition of global African art but it was a different thing. It was great to be a part of that group because it was kind of a validation.
For me, just looking at the way metal moves and then thinking about how somebody is going to wear it holds a lot of interest for me. So, if I can explore that more, that would be brilliant. I don’t like the worry part of it. When I was younger, I didn’t think about anything. I just made it and got on with it. And I’m getting back to that. If I feel happy making something, it comes out better!
KS: Absolutely. Now, why silver? Are you interested in other metals and how they move?
NE: Ah, silver! It’s very clean, it’s forgiving, it moves beautifully. Obviously with silver you’ve got your fine, you’ve got your Britannia, and you’ve got your sterling. I used to work in sterling and it was very springy and kind of hard and I loved it. Then I was introduced to Britannia silver and I love the way it moves softly and then holds the strength of the marks. It’s very clean and I can get really nice marks into it. I find fine silver is too soft, I have to work it harder, it takes longer because it has a grain in it. You have to be careful and stroke the material into its finish. Britannia is just right: it’s got the hardness of the sterling and the softness of fine and it just meets in the middle for me. I also used to work in copper and gilded metal; when you anneal it, you get oxidation and it’s very dirty. If I wanted to make something big or a prototype I’ll use copper. Silver is also usable for food; a lot of the things I make are functional. In the past, I have tried to combine silver with glass, I have had glass blowers blow glass onto the metal. I’ve tried wood as well but it doesn’t always marry well; I’m just not a furniture person. Silver does sit beautifully on furniture on a wooden table!
KS: You’ve said that your work must be utilitarian. Every item must have a specific use and not just be beautiful. Why must it be utilitarian?
NE: To start, when I was looking at silver it was always in a glass cabinet. You wouldn’t ever be able to touch it. I used to think that was a bit of a shame. For me, it’s important that people can touch it, handle it, and use it. It’s important that you are able to engage with the object. The other thing is, when I was at the Royal College of Art, a professor said: “You can’t just make objects that sit on the side, they must be functional.” It stuck.
When I make an object, especially back then, I was making them speculatively. I’d imagine a thing that holds flowers, but not just a straight vase—something that wrapped round the flowers, you know? The movement of the material becomes a part of the practical functionality of the metal work. For me, that was interesting moving metal to get it to do something that it wasn’t meant to be doing. And I loved the fact that [at Bishopsland] they would do exhibitions all over and encourage people to handle the objects before they buy them. Sometimes people would say, “Oh I have to put some gloves on!” and I’d say, “Oh no, I can clean it after! Handle it because you’re going to use it, you’re going to drink out of it.” It’s a lovely way to engage with the client, to imagine the client using it their homes.
KS: I love the movement in your work: all your pieces undulate, not just through the curves but through the beautiful textures. I find your work beautifully feminine. You’ve said: “I am excited by the sensual and rich forms that can be created by the rhythmic process of making and believe my nature is reflected through my work.”4 When you say “your nature,” what do you mean?
NE: When you’re talking about that, you’re talking about the strength of women I know, and the pieces hold that strength in the metal, in the grooves, in the way they’ve been manipulated and pushed and pulled. So, they’re quite strong. Then you look at the surface of it: yes, they are feminine, beautifully taken care of, if you understand what I mean. It’s considered.
I grew up with women who were not afraid to show they are women, you know what I mean? No matter what size they were, what clothes they were wearing, they wore it like I am the best thing in the world and were happy within themselves. So, when I make an object, this is what it is: I’ve thought about the design, the movement in it, this is me appreciating the beauty of the material. I look after the material right from beginning to end. Silver does not like to be beaten up—you have to carefully get it to where it’s going.
But then again, when I’m hammering metal, it’s hard, it’s rhythmical, it’s a process. From design to the end object, it’s a process. I make a lot of pieces at once and will leave [something to the] side if it’s not right and move on to something else and then come back to it. The women I know are not shy; even the ones who are shy are able to show themselves, their characters, who they are—they are all individual and have different personalities. I’m not shy; I like to show what I can do. Do you get me?
KS: It’s so clear to me that you’re talking about African women.
NE: Initially, yeah. Because, obviously! My mum used to wear African wear in Manchester when I was a little girl and I was like, WHAT? My mum would wear wraps on her head, the batiks—the patterns mixed and colors matched. She’d wear her wrappers and she didn’t care.5 She thought, I’m an African woman and this is what I’m wearing, this is normal. But that was my mom. Listening to her and her friends talk—African language is high, it’s low, it’s joyful, it’s sad. In one conversation you get all that! You don’t whisper it; you say it out loud. You say what you think. That’s where it started.
But as I left Manchester, I was meeting women from all sorts of different backgrounds. Still again, strong women having to work in different situations, juggling jobs and children, struggling to find a job. There were a lot of African women and there were a lot of women from the Caribbean and other cultures who also had to juggle. They were not small women and they held themselves beautifully, wore beautiful clothes. . . . They were just not shy about anything. Coming away from Manchester and meeting people from all kinds of backgrounds, it’s not all about being out there. Strong women are not necessarily women who shout out all the time. Strong women are women who have lived life and are interested in lots of things—and those are the kinds of jewelers I’ve met over the years.
KS: Talk to me about the sheer physicality of this work.
NE: I hammer long hours in a day. I’d seen a lot of silversmiths making, raising, who stand all day. I don’t stand up, I sit down. I’m comfortable. I have good posture. The hammers are not massively heavy and I hold them in the correct way. In the past, I have hurt myself holding [them] wrong. When you have an injury, you should just stop and correct. Posture, holding the tool correctly, these all matter. If I’m tired, I don’t work; if I’m sleepy, I don’t work. I don’t push myself through it. The other thing I noticed: if I have a holiday, [afterward] I have to build the stamina back up. It’s like training.
The person who taught me—I remember looking at his hands, which were massive; your body adapts to your making. Touch wood,I’ve been okay up to now. I remember carrying a silversmith stake home and I hurt my wrist just by carrying it on a twenty minute walk. And I had to rest and let it heal. I don’t make that mistake anymore—I look after my body. I rest when injured. If I’m in pain, I stop. I always wear ear defenders. When I’m teaching as well, I teach correct posture, the proper way to hold your hand. I have had students come to me with huge hammers and I have to tell them, You can’t work with that! It’s like a sledgehammer. I tell them to feel my hammer—it’s a lot lighter. That’s how I can hammer for hours. I love hammering!
KS: When I was in Senegal, my teacher had very heavy hammers. Women “don’t wield the hammer” there; I had lots of difficulties. My hands are small and I couldn’t just bang away with heavy hammers! I learned to adapt but I still used too much power. My teacher was the first person I saw who adapted tools for his body specifically. For instance, his hammers were really heavy but the handles were cut down drastically!
NE: The hammers I use a lot are all shaped in a particular way. The silversmithing stakes that I use are clean, shiny, and have different purposes. I have chasing tools but don’t really use them much at all. I have been taught how to make the chasing tools I need. I don’t do a lot of forging; I don’t like it, it’s too hard. The hammers I use are shaped specially for what I do. That’s how I can hammer for hours. I love hammering! I’d even realized that I use a quite heavy hammer to put the patterns on the objects I make; I just recently made a lighter one that does what I need. I prefer longer hammers: when you hit the material the weight of the hammer hits the metal. It’s not me using all my strength; the weight of the hammerhead is what does the work. All I’m doing is lifting it up and down, if that makes sense.
KS: So, when you’re talking about the hammers being shaped a certain way, you’re talking about the handles?
NE: Yes, the handle has to be a certain length. Usually the hammers that I use are longer. And they bow out so that the part that you hold on to is towards the end of the hammer and it doesn’t fall out of your hand. They have that bell curve at the bottom. And I make sure they don’t get too short for me because if they’re too short, you put too much effort into it. So, the length and shape matter to give you the whack that you need. Some of the hammers I’ve got are quite springy and they’re beautiful. They bounce back nicely. It’s like a repousseing hammer but not a repousseing hammer. But that’s another story. [laughs]
KS: What’s next for Ndidi Ekubia professionally?
NE: A project I’m doing at the moment is making a beaker; I’m raising it as I normally would but I’m using chasing tools to get more defined textures. Another thing is I’ve gone back to an old design, the Flamingo Vase. I’ve been manipulating them so that you can wear them. They’re usually made into a vase but now you’ll be able to wear them as a bangle. Also working on teapots. I want to do more of that. I’m also working on 2D flat work; it’s not functional—it goes on a wall. This recent holiday made me think I wanted to produce more and quicker and that’s a good way to do that and go large with it.
KS: Do you consider yourself an artist?
NE: I have called myself an artist in the past. I don’t know, I feel like I’m a maker. I’d love to be considered an artist.
KS: There’s a way I’ve seen people not take possession of the beauty they put into the world, you know? We don’t always trumpet our own horn. For me, being an artist has nothing to do with sales, exhibitions, or what people see.
NE: To be honest, there’s been a gap, another element of making work. For me, personally, I have to be okay within myself. I’ve talked a lot about my work but I haven’t expressed it. Over the last five to six years, my heart has been broken. There was a period of time I couldn’t even listen to music, I couldn’t do the making as much as normal. I still did, because I can’t do without it. I just thought, I can’t keep on making the same things as usual. So, when [Brilliant & Black] happened, it really shook me out of the brokenheartedness.
I have been listening to music and really functioning again. That 2D work is coming. I draw lots and talk to friends and family, but to show it to the world is stepping out of comfort zone. It’s not “functional”—it’s going to be my expression of things I’ve seen. I’ve got it out and that for me will announce I AM AN ARTIST! I do describe myself as such but if I can get this work out, in my head and in my heart, I’m allowing myself to show what I can do properly without any excuses.
I’m able to heal my heart, which is important because I’m emotionally attached to my work. The work has helped drag me out of it. I couldn’t not do something, even if I wasn’t making as much as I was. COVID also made me realize that I had to DO something. Artists have been lucky to have that outlet.
KS: What’s the difference, then, between a maker and an artist?
NE: A maker is thinking more about how it’s going to work, is it going to fit, is it going to pour, is it going to sit in this area. What is its function? A maker goes through a design process; you have an idea or concept and it’s like a puzzle and you follow that process to see how it fits.
Artists visualize what they’ve seen, what they feel, and put it into an object. An artist’s ideas come through the material. That’s why sometimes I say I’m an artist and sometimes a maker. I see myself as both. A swan in the city! It’s quite nice.
1. Brilliant & Black was a selling exhibition at Sotheby’s London showcasing the creativity and craftwork of “the world’s leading black designers.” In 2022, during the second installment, Ekubia’s work was showcased along with that of Karen Smith. For more, visit https://www.sothebys.com/en/buy/luxury/jewelry/brilliant-&-black. ↩
2. “Bishopsland is an internationally recognized Postgraduate Center of Excellence. The one-year full-time residential course is designed to provide a bridge between a university degree and the ability to forge a career as a self-employed silversmith or jeweller.” From “About Bishopsland,” n.d., https://bishopsland.org.uk/about-us/.↩
3. Penelope Makower was a silversmith and her husband Oliver Makower had a textiles business. They established Bishopsland in 1993. ↩
4. Ndidi Ekubia, “Ndidi Ekubia MBE,” Adrian Sassoon Gallery, n.d., https://www.adriansassoon.com/artists/ndidi-ekubia.↩
5. Wrappers are also called “lappas” and are worn around the waist like a skirt.↩