Beer Vessel. Zulu people, South Africa, 20th century. Fired clay and slip. Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; Dick Jemison Collection of African Pottery, AFI94.2012.
Beer vessel, Zulu people, 20th century
African artisans have produced pottery for at least 10,000 to 15,000 years. Handmade ceramics, particularly in rural areas, are still central to family and community life. People use vessels for cooking and serving food and drink, brewing beer, and storing water, foodstuffs, medicine, and valuables. Pots and modeled clay sculptures – objects with spiritual, ritual, and ceremonial importance – play a role in funerals, initiations, weddings, honoring ancestors and spirits, healing, and divination. Fired clay vessels and their contents commonly are focal points of the most sacred rituals in African communities.
Although traditions vary from region to region, women primarily make pottery and pass down that skill. Particularly in West Africa, women potters often come from artisan families in which the men are blacksmiths. Both the women and men from these families guard important knowledge about how to use fire to transform raw materials into essential utensils, tools, and weapons.
Africans believe that clay and other natural materials hold a powerful spiritual force or energy. Ritual accompanies the entire process of pottery production – beginning with the harvest of clay from the ground or river bank – to ensure success, as well as to protect the potter and the environment. As with other traditional artistic endeavors in Africa, powerful forces in the invisible world link the artist, craft process, natural resources, and transformational elements (in this case, fire). Artisans must acknowledge and carefully maintain these relationships.
Once harvested, potters purify and temper the clay so that it does not crack or shrink during firing. They build vessels by hand – rather than turning them on a wheel – and add patterns with a sharp tool, by rolling twigs or twine across the surface, or by building it in relief. Before firing, some artisans paint pots with slip (a thin, colored clay) or burnish them to create a glossy surface.
Rather than in a closed kiln, pots are fired either inside a low circular wall or in an open mound, with fuel (branches and other organic material) stacked underneath and heaped on top. In some traditions, artisans “smother” the vessels, or cut off oxygen to turn the surface black. Depending on its intended use, a potter might pull a vessel from the ashes and dunk it into vegetal liquid while still hot to seal it. Unlike porcelain, African pots – fired at low temperatures – can withstand the subsequent heat of a cooking fire without cracking.
The shape of and decorations on ceramic vessels often symbolize important ideas to a culture. Pots themselves may look like a male or female body; a female shape with breasts, belly buttons, or scarification marks, for example, relates to human life. The tradition of adorning medicine pots with spikes exists among several ethnic groups, differentiating them clearly from vessels for food or drink.
Although African potters still make ceramics in abundance, markets have long sold imported containers in enameled tin, aluminum, and plastic that people increasingly use side-by-side with ceramics. In some cases, these wares have completely replaced locally made utilitarian pottery. As younger women may not learn to make pottery, several ceramic forms on view in the Museum’s African ceramic gallery are no longer in use. In some areas, however, market demand is growing; potters there experiment with new forms, demonstrating their creativity and technological mastery of this art form.
In 2011, the Museum acquired a collection of African ceramics from Dick Jemison, a local artist. A longtime collector of Native American tribal art, Jemison became interested in African ceramics during a trip to South Africa. After first purchasing a Zulu beer pot, he spent the next two decades researching and collecting superb examples. His collection – 406 objects in all, unique in its depth and breadth – represents the beauty and diversity of pottery traditions from across the African continent and allows for comparative study of ceramics not only across the vast geographical expanse of the continent but also across time.
In February 2013, the Museum opened a gallery dedicated solely to African ceramics, to showcase both the Jemison Collection and similar works from the Museum’s collection – together, the largest and most comprehensive grouping of African ceramics in the country. The first installation presents over 50 West, Central, and Southern African works from the Jemison Collection. Inspired by these and comprehensive holdings in global ceramics, the Museum also inaugurated a biennial symposium in 2013 to reaffirm its position as a center for scholars and artists from around the world to study ceramics.
Explore African ceramics!
Visit the Museum’s art research library to check out these resources and more on African ceramics.
Smashing Pots: Works of Clay from Africa by Nigel Barley
African Ceramics: Ancient and Historic Earthenware Vessels by Douglas Dawson Gallery
The Art of African Clay: Ancient and Historic African Ceramics by Douglas Dawson Gallery
From the Earth : African Ceramic Art by Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African Art