The Inescapable, Indivisible Essence of Pottery
Published in The Art of African Clay: Ancient and Historic African Ceramics, Douglas Dawson Gallery, Chicago Illinois, 2003.
How can objects created in earlier epochs, from our own or other cultures, touch us so deeply? Why is a double-necked water jar from the Mambila (Cameroon), a satin black Zulu ukhamba for brewing beer, or a softly bent-necked pouring bottle from the Matakam (Chad) so evocative? Can pottery whose origins spring from foreign cultures or distant times actually be germane today?
Matakam H 13" x W 10"
All photos are by Paul Lecat, copyright by Douglas Dawson.
Yet pottery’s essential utilitarian character can cloak the abstract essence through which these African vessels serve the soul. In Western cultures that have separated art from daily life, the seam of this duality is prone to being ripped apart. There are art historians whose perceptions are limited to pots as “merely physical containers,” anthropologists who treat pottery solely as data reflecting cultural interchange, even art critics who assess strictly in terms of purified formal aesthetic qualities such as color, volume or patterning. As in the ancient Indian parable, “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” all are exploring only one isolated aspect of a complex creation.
Ewe (Ghana or Togo) H 8.5" x W 5.5"
forced to generalize, I would argue that these stunning African objects
convey a fundamental sense of earthiness and immediacy. This pottery
embodies nature as it also manipulates nature. The unadorned qualities
of clay and earth are embraced in these pots. As a material deftly
handled, earthenware is less prone to the afflictions that can overwhelm
higher-fired clays concealed with thick, colored, and seductive glazes.
Incorporated in these African vessels is a unified spirit of spontaneity
and assurance, whether rough and unrefined or elegant and vigorous.
Early art that is articulate speaks to us because it is attuned to current necessities. Our common humanity explains both our need and our ability to draw insights from the creations of others. No matter how dispersed the origins, objects coalesce as pertinent answers to perennial, duplicative questions. In 1962 George Kubler, an anthropological art historian, adroitly analyzed the history of ideas and art objects in his seminal book, The Shape of Time. Replacing progressive and linear theories of stylistic change, Kubler argued that an art object “points to the existence of some problem to which there have been other solutions and that other solutions to this same problem will most likely be invented to follow the one now in view.” (fn 3) For Kubler, objects are reinvented resolutions to enduring problems. For artists—whether potters or painters—the modern configuration of tradition embraces objects clustered closely in meaning but diverse in material, cultural, and temporal origins.
Tutsi, Rwanda H 9" x W 6" and 6.5"
Zulu H 15" x W 19"
At first, all Zulu beer fermentation jars seem stylistically similar. But in fact, they differ by maker and by user. (fn 5) All potters know that the manners in which they handle the clay—their personal signatures—are almost impossible (and undesirable) to erase. When first made, each Zulu jar expressed accepted norms, regional variations, and, I would argue, recognizable individual aesthetic innovations. The patterns of amasumpa (raised pellets), probably a royal prerogative, once expressed other specificities that are forever lost. Yet, as handmade artistic objects, each vessel remains unique and alive. Kubler compares style to a rainbow: once we reach the source it disappears. (fn 6) Vessels are not transparent windows into the past, but membranes that express their own properties and qualities. For an artist, historical pots are a contemporary reservoir of inspiration. They enlarge the vocabulary of a common ceramic language and enable new methods of combination and communication.
Nyonyosi-Yatenga, Burkina Faso H 15" x W 11"
Appreciation is not simply a matter of aesthetic intuition, though intuition is an essential sensibility. Comprehension is also an accretive educational process of connoisseurship. Determining virtuosity partly emanates from comparisons and references within the universe of known clay vessels. What carries forth my passion in these African pots is a ricocheting energy between each vessel’s overall aura and the nuances of inventive phrases freshly spoken. Densely handled rims, textured and whorled patterns, and sculptural necks are all fecund, provoking dreams and gestations of new recombinations within personal motifs.
Luba H 18" x W 11"
Cameroon H 18" x W 15"
Kirdi/Chamba H 22" x W 14"
1. We should never replace our ignorance as to the utilitarian-aesthetic-symbolic life of an object with the belief that no such complex creative nexus exists. Nor should we mistake our inability to discern who actually made an object with the assumption that the object was anonymously generated. We should recognize the speciousness of any claim that the genesis of another culture’s material objects does not involve any individually chosen aesthetic decisions. Recent scholarship has begun to correct for these myopic views, documenting in Africa, for instance, the wide creative latitude exercised by specific individual makers creating within sophisticated cultural traditions and needs. See for instance, Sally Price, Primitive Art in Civilized Places (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), particularly chapters 4 and 8.
5. Frank Jolles, “Zulu Beer Vessels,” in Tracing the Rainbow: Art and Life in Southern Africa, ed. Stefan Eisenhofer (Stuttgart: Arnoldsche) 306-319.
6. Kubler, 129-130. Also see Kubler’s introductory comments on the history of art and the place of the artist in The Art and Architecture of Ancient America, 3rd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 37-45.
7. Philip Rawson’s treatise, Ceramics, the only in-depth inquiry in English to delve into pottery’s aesthetic grammar, explores the symbolism of the many physical aspects that compose a vessel. Philip Rawson, Ceramics (London: Oxford University Press, 1971).
8. Arthur Lane, Style in Pottery (London: Oxford University Press, 1948), 10.
9. Warren Frederick, “The Poetics of Primitive Pottery,” in Ceramics: Art and Perception, 20 (1995), 43-45.
10. Rawson for instance, notes that “we have to make the effort imaginatively to put ourselves in the place of the users, seeing the symbols as having not the content we might see in them…but as elements in a vivid life of sensation and emotion.” All patterns “must have been meant…to add value and spiritual effectiveness, through their evocative overtones, to the ware in the eyes of its user” (161, 165).
an abstract painter and sculptor, has clearly and extensively argued
that for many
non-European material objects (fiber,
clay, stone, wood, or metal) surface patterning itself is the central
art. Paternosto’s specific convincing example is for the centrality
of geometrically patterned Andean textiles as that culture’s primary
and most essential symbolic language. He also explores these textiles’ direct
influence on 20th century artists such as Paul Klee, Adolph Gottlieb,
and Barnett Newman. Cesar Paternosto, Abstraction: The Amerindian
Paradigm (Brussels: Societe des Expositions du Palis des
Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles, 2001).