I have been fascinated by African pottery for
4 decades. I first went to West Africa as a young Peace
Corps Volunteer assigned to the national arts center of Ouagadougou,
to organize their pottery section. I immediately discovered that the potters
of Burkina Faso were already extremely skilled and so I devoted
my effort to learning how they made pottery and
inviting them to come to the arts center to work
and demonstrate their skills for visiting tourists.
As an art historian I also discovered that across the continent,
African potters created an enormous range of shapes and sizes,
textures and patterns, and all sorts of colors of pottery.
They quickly fashion closed containers for storing water or grain,
or open containers for cooking. Small containers for holding palm wine or
millet beer, or large containers that never are moved
that are used to store the familyÆs harvest. Some of these jars are heavily decorated
with modeled shapes and patterns and then used as shrine pots for religious
celebrations. Others become darkened with decades of soot
as they sit on the open hearths in womenÆs kitchens.
African potters understand as fully as Western potters do,
the almost magical plastic quality of clay and that it can be prodded, pushed, squeezed,
molded, twisted, and pulled into unlimited shapes.
To make pottery you have to have good clay. All across Africa potters know where there
are good veins of uniform clay that is free from foreign
materials. Sometimes the women themselves go out to collect
the clay, but often they send their children with baskets.
They must be very careful when digging for clay
not to dig back so far into the bank that the heavy earth on the surface collapses on
top of them. They carry the heavy clay back to the workshop
where they may let it dry. [Speaking to each other]
[Chris Echeta speaks] ôItÆs like sometimes if the holes are so bigö
ôthat they cannot forestand the weight, the walls are overburdened,ö
ôthey collapse and sometimes the potters put their lives at risk.ö In some areas the clay is filled with water
and allowed to soak, absorbing as much water as possible in a process
called slaking. They break the clay up into small chunks and
place it in a mortar then pound it with a pestle to
turn it into powder. They then sift the clay powder with the same
sort of sieve that is used for preparing food. In another area of the compound potters, or
their children, may be smashing up old broken pot shards between
two stones to produce a grainy material which is called
grog, this is clay that has already been fired once
and so when it is fired again it will not shrink.
The grog is added to the powdered clay, both are then kneaded together with water
to produce the clay body that can be used for making pottery.
Here you see one of the daughters of the family whose job it is to knead the clay by foot.
She systematically circles, kneading the clay and then adds new fresh powder and kneads
again. Mrs Konate is kneading grog into her fresh
clay by hand. Among the Igbo people of Southern Nigeria
the clay may be placed in a shallow trough and kneaded into a uniform mass using a pestle.
The simplest and most obvious technique is simply to turn an old jar upside down on
the ground and to use it as a mold for a new jar.
Mrs. Konate in the village of Ouri in central Burkina Faso
has been making jars for decades. I first photographed her in 1983 and IÆve
been going back to visit her from time to time
ever since. The last time I visited her in 2010,
she was getting very elderly and frail. She begins by forming a flat pancake of fresh
clay and then she slaps it down over the mold jar.
She uses a beater in her right hand to spread the fresh clay
out over the mold jar thinning it and spreading it.
Mrs. Konate is the wife of a blacksmith and you can hear the blacksmiths at work behind
her. [Metal clinking]
She uses a coil of fresh clay to form a ridge around the base and then shapes that with
her fingers into a flat bottom that will support the pot
when it is placed on the ground. When it is the right thickness and it has
covered the jar to its widest dimension, she carefully trims
the lower edge to make it uniform and sets it aside to dry
for a short period. She must be careful not to leave it for too
long or it will begin to crack as it shrinks on
the mold jar. When it is stiff enough so that it wonÆt
deform she lifts it off, sometimes with the help of another woman in
the compound. The concave mold technique is the first technique
that I discovered when I first went to Africa as a Peace Corps
Volunteer. I had studied pottery in college but I had
never seen such an unusual and innovative technique.
The potter has a shallow depression,
or sometimes more than one, in the floor of her workshop,
or even in the space she uses as a kitchen so that she can go from work to cooking after
washing her hands. The depression is only about an 8th of a sphere
deep yet she is able to use it to form a fully
spherical jar. She kneads fresh clay into a thick round mass
and places it in the mold. She then uses a mallet in her right hand
to pound the fresh clay into the mold thinning it and spreading it.
[Speaking together] [Slapping clay]
Of course she quickly fills up the shallow mold so
she rotates the mass of fresh clay up on edge, exposing part of the shallow mold and continues
to pound. She rotates and pounds, rotates and pounds,
building a spherical jar larger and larger. From time to time she stops and uses her fingers
to consolidate the rough clay around the edge of the opening.
Occasionally, when she discovers that she has run out of fresh clay,
she adds a fresh coil around the rim and continues to pound and rotate.
The technique produces a very thin, light, strong, spherical jar.
[Slapping clay] She sets it upright in the mold
and uses a coil of fresh clay in the opening to form the rim.
At this point, the jar is almost complete and she is adding the coils to form the rim.
She carefully consolidates the rim and then uses a wet cloth to smooth it.
Like all American and European potters, I picked up African jars to tap them with
my fingers to see if they were fired to the right temperature.
Of course they made a thump instead of a ring because they were low-fired earthenware.
I thought it would be nice to teach them how to fire their pottery to a higher temperature.
Then I discovered that they didnÆt want high-fired pottery,
because the low-fired earthenware they made could be used for cooking over an open fire,
while higher fired pottery would shatter if exposed to open flame.
It soon became apparent to me that the techniques that African potters used
represent appropriate technology; that is African had developed techniques
to make pottery that suited their needs, but whose manufacture did not consume precious
or expensive resources. The variations on African pottery shapes,
colors, and decorations are almost infinite. In this example from the Nyakusa people in
Tanzania, we see large hemispheres of bright red against
a cream colored slip. The sharp joint around the middle portion
of the pot makes it appear as if it had been formed in
two separate pieces. This pot from the Zande people of Northern
Congo certainly looks a little bit phallic
and it has wonderful ridges of plastic modeling. This beautiful jar from the Baule people has
a rough texture around the lower portion and bands of lizards
and snake below the rim. The Zulu are famous for their elegant black
beer jars which may have incised or impressed patterns,
or large raised dots which the Zulu call ôAmasumpa,ö or ôwarts.ö
The Tutsi people make very elegant, delicate pots
which must be used for holding palm wine. I love the contrast and color between the
darker neck and the lighter body of the jar.
This jar from the Nyanja people of Malawi, is similar to the Tutsi jar except that
it has a broader neck on a low, round body. The Bamileke people in Cameroon are famous
for their large round jars. This beautiful example has two strings of
stylized human figures around the shoulder of the jar.
The elegant flaring rim has been modeled by hand,
not turned on a potterÆs wheel. The Mambila live along the Benue River in
Nigeria, and produce large powerful jars like this
one with three handles. Large bumps that look like Zulu ôwartsö
à are modeled into a human figure.
The upper portion of this Nupe jar is decorated with very stylized human figures that have
been scraped into the surface with a narrow comb.
This Nupe jar with one chamber above the other was probably used as a filter.
This small jar from Nigeria has been covered with human and animal shapes.
It was almost certainly a shrine pot. Lobi women in Burkina Faso make beautiful
large round jars which they stack one above the other in their
kitchens to hold supplies, food, and even valuables.
Here is as in many of the jars the dark color, is the result of reduction firing, with extra
fuel introduced to turn the red iron-oxide into black iron-oxide.
This broad jar from Malawi is decorated with patterns of parallel and incised lines.
The surface of this Igbo jar has been roughened by using a roulette that is rolled over the
surface in the palm of the potterÆs hand.
This jar has been decorated in the same way, but the potter has brilliantly left a few
areas un-roughened. A beautiful large Idoma jar from just north
of the Benue River. Another from the same people with irregular
bands of decoration. I personally much prefer this evidence that
the jar was actually made by a human hand,
rather than being decorated with some sort of mechanical device,
as so often happens in the Western world. You see the same use of irregular patterns
on this jar from southern Burkina Faso.
An amazing jar from the Mama people, with three enormous lobes.
I would be fascinated to know what such an object was used for.
An Igbo jar with fine lines of raised decoration. This jar from Cameroon has been reinforced
with basketry applied over the exterior. Many shrine jars have added figures in relief.
But the depth of the relief on this Mambila jar is exceptional.
And another from the Mambila in Cameroon with very large ôwarts,ö and the human figure.
The Bamana people of Mali are masters at producing large round jars for storage.
A jar from Nigeria with what appears to be scarification patterns on the abdomen, and
either an umbilicus or genitalia. The same patterns are more easily visible
on this larger jar. Almost certainly a palm wine jar from southern
Nigeria. Many of the people along the Benue River
produce ancestor pots to be placed on shrines. This jug from the lower Congo may be modeled
after a European liquor jug. Another similar jug, but with the brilliant
addition of two human heads. The Songye people of Central Congo are famous
for jars like this one. With two swelling areas, one just below the
rim at the shoulder, and another at the belly of the pot.
A small jar for palm wine with a beautifully modeled human head.
A very simple but elegant jar from northeastern Congo.
A small dish for serving food, with a human head and faces.
This large jar from the Bamana people has two very different textures;
a glossy upper portion and a much more matte lower portion decorated
with serpents. This beautiful Zulu beer pot shows the raised
ôwartsö which they call ôAmasumpa.ö
This is a figurative ancestor pot. And another, from the Mambila people.
I think this is the first jar from the Makonde people that IÆve ever seen,
and IÆm very impressed by the quality of the decoration.
East African potters seem to be much more focused
on perfect symmetry then potters in West Africa, even without the use of a potterÆs wheel.
Sometimes the black color is caused by years of accumulation of soot,
but more often from conscious blackening in a reduction firing.
The rough ôwartsö on this beer pot must have been,
must have made it much easier to handle when it was wet.
A Nupe container with two breasts and an umbilicus. People all along the Niger River in Mali and
Niger produce large, very colorful jars.
This one has a lovely dark fire cloud caused by reduction during the firing.
This Ewe shrine pot from Togo is decorated with all sorts
of signs and symbols of the coastal religion called Voodoo.
Finally, a lovely jar from Nigeria with a beautiful dark fire cloud
produced during the firing. One of the most common and ubiquitous techniques
in West Africa is the coiling technique. Some people in Africa use the coiling technique
exclusively, while other potters use it to add new material
to pottery they have started to form using other techniques.
First, Mrs. Konate in the village of Ouri scrapes the edge of the jar
with a sharp tool to remove dry material so that the fresh clay will adhere better
to it. She then forms the large thick sausage of
clay, and holding it in her right hand inside the
pot, applies it against the heel of her left hand,
which is outside the pot. As she applies the clay, she gives the sausage
a twist with her wrist, which consolidates the fresh clay into the
rising walls of the jar below. Ewe potters who make small jars in Nigeria
use smaller, lighter sausages of clay, while Igbo potters
in the village of Ouri use very large, thick sausages of clay,
consuming several sausages, as they make a complete revolution around
the jar. Now she is adding a coil to the exterior,
thickening the rim so that she can form it into a large symmetrical
solid rim. The jar is way too large to rotate, so instead,
she walks around the jar herself. I am sure that there are potters in Nigeria
who form enormous jars to be used for soaking Cassava, or brewing
some kind of beer. These Ewe potters in southern Nigeria are
forming smaller jars using the coiling technique. Because the pots are small, the potters can
hold the base in their hand, while they use coils to increase the dimensions
of the new jar. Here she scrapes clay from the base up,
to form the walls of the new jar. [Animal noises]
[Animal noises and birds chirping] She has thinned the base out and now
she is adding a new coil of fresh clay. [Chicken clucking]
Now she has formed almost half of a sphere. These artists are extremely deft;
able simply to press the fresh clay with their right hand
into the heel of their left hand. Consolidating it with the edge of the jar
and rapidly building up a partial sphere. Once the basic shape of the jar has been completed
the potter uses coils to add more material, building the walls of the jar up higher and
higher and scraping them with a shell to spread and
thin them. She scrapes the sides of her jar upward with
a wooden tool. [Animal noises]
She is working on the inside of the jar with the knuckles of her right hand
and so she supports the walls of the jar on the outside with her left hand.
Finally she adds another coil around the edge of the rim,
which she can then shape into a flat edge and then decorate with impressed patterns.
She smooths the interior of the jar with a shell.
[Animal noises] She smooths the rim out with a wet cloth
to make it nice and smooth and uniform. Now she begins to impress small delicate patterns
on the flared rim. [Birds chirping]
Here she is using a twisted piece of string as a roulette
to roll across the surface of the pot to give it a rough texture,
which makes it easier to handle.
This is a jar for smoking fish. Until I met Maria Kafando in 2001,
I thought I had seen all of the variations of pottery making available in Burkina Faso.
Maria is an elderly lady who lives in a small village
about 50 miles south of Ouagadougou. She has been making pottery all of her life
and supports her daughters and her grandchildren with the income from
her pottery. [Speaking in her language]
She begins of course by kneading the clay and then uses the convex mold technique to
form a half of a sphere. She forms several of these small thick hemispheres
and then takes them into her house where she places a spherical mold inside each
one. She uses a mallet in her right hand to thin
the clay out and spread it over the mold.
But she does not stop when she reaches the widest part of the mold.
Instead she continues to spread and thin the clay
until she has almost completely covered the mold jar.
At this point her technique becomes truly interesting
because she performs four small episiotomies around the edge of the new jar
and removes the mold from the interior. She folds the edges of the incisions on top
of each other and then inserts a smaller mold inside the
new jar and begins to tap again; repairing the tears.
She works with the small clay form, which I call an anvil, on the inside of the
jar and taps gently on the outside of the jar
with her right hand holding a concave mallet, or hammer.
As she does so the jar becomes thinner and thinner
but retains its very symmetrical, spherical shape.
She carefully trims around the rim of the jar to even it out.
Maria then adds a thick sausage of fresh clay around the rim working it into the spherical
jar with her thumb and forefinger.
Finally she uses a wet piece of cloth to shape the rim;
to thin it and flare it while she rotates the new jar in her left hand.
She does all of this while holding the jar in her lap
and without placing it on the ground or on any kind of support.
[Speaking in her language] The next day when the jar has dried sufficiently,
she takes it out into a court yard and fills in any low spots or blemishes with
fresh clay and rubs the entire jar smooth with a necklace
of strong baobab seeds. Two years after I made this video,
Maria traveled with my PHD student Dr Boureima Diamitani
to the city of Taipei china, where she gave demonstrations of her pottery
technique to a congress of potters, artists, and anthropologists.
At the end of the trip she was quite exhausted and happy to return home;
a woman, who had barely left her village before, traveled all the way to China and back on
Air France and stayed in a luxury hotel.
I met the artist Awa Diabite in the village of Pelignan in southwest Burkina
Faso in 2001. She is a member of a group of artists called
Jelly, whose husbands are leather workers.
There were several related men in this village along with a large number of wives,
all of whom were skilled potters. Awa begins with a large mass of clay
which she places on a shallow dish between her knees.
She forces her fist down into the mass of clay forming a cavity
and then using the fingers of her right hand inside the jar
and her left hand outside the jar, begins to pull the soft wet clay upward,
thinning it and increasing the height of the jar.
She rotates the jar on the shallow dish while she remains seated.
[Children speaking to each other] When she has increased the height as much
as she can with the material with which she started she
adds more clay by using a fresh coil.
She adds a coil to the rim and rotates it to smooth it
and make it uniform. As she forms the rim she rotates the pot
as if it were on a potterÆs wheel but in fact,
because there is no axis on which to rotate, this is not a true wheel.
[Baby laughs] As she turns the jar upside down and using
a sharp ring of raffia midrib she scrapes away excess clay thinning
the rim and body.
[People speaking in background] Finally she applies a rough but uniform texture
to the exterior of the jar with a corncob-roulette. Asante potters use the very same technique
as the potters in western Burkina Faso, with the major exception that they form the
top half of the pot completely before they turn it
upside-down and finish the pot from the bottom upwards.
On this rainy day in Kumasi I only had time to video
the first half of pottery production which was
the forming of the upper half of the jar. Had I been able to stay and had it not been
raining, I would have filmed her completing the pot
upside down. She scoops out the mass of clay at the center
of the new jar and forces her fist down inside. Now she pulls the clay from the inside of
the jar with her right hand upward to form the upper
walls of the jar. She uses a very large think coil of clay
to add more material to the jar.
[People talking in background] [Rain Falling]
You can hear the rain on the plastic that covers my camera.
[Baby crying] You can see her daughters and nieces in the
background kneading the clay she needs to make another
pot. She uses a dried corncob to smooth the exterior
of the jar into a uniform surface. African potters fire in the open, with the
exception of modern potters who have been taught western
techniques by visiting technicians from Europe or America.
African potters do not use kilns, but either fire on the flat ground or a very
shallow depression. Occasionally potters will construct low circular
walls in which they place their pottery, and the
walls keep extra cold air from blowing into the fire.
Potters use whatever fuel is available; they may use dried donkey manure,
dried grass from the fields beyond their homes, dried bark they collected while they were
cutting firewood, or, especially in the forest areas to the
south dried midribs of raffia palms.
They never use expensive fuel such as gas or electricity.
All of the women in the community work together to pile up the new pottery in the kiln for
firing. If several women work together each may identify
her own pottery by some pattern pressed into the clay
or painted with slip on the exterior. In some cases they all work together to fire
the pottery of just one of the women.
In this case, they are all working to fire the pots created by Awa Diabite.
Awa Diabite is wearing a green and white checked skirt.
The fuel is lighted and allowed to burn freely. In Pelignan , you see some of the women
throwing pails of water on the firing to try to slow down
the burning so that it doesnÆt get too hot too rapidly.
They also take care not to let the fire spread to the neighboring brush.
In a short time the fuel has been reduced to a very thick blanket of red hot ash.
The pottery bakes underneath this for some time
until it is a bright glowing red. While it is still hot the potters hook out
the pottery and dip the hot pottery in a kind of vegetable
soup made of boiled Acacia seed pods.
This process drives excess carbon deep into the body
of the hot pottery, turning the jars from a bright red to a dark brown.
This is very similar to techniques used in Japan and America which are called raku.
The process makes the pottery more suitable for cooking over an open fire and makes jars
more waterproof. The process turns the red ferrous iron Fe3
into black ferrous iron Fe2. This is the firing of Igbo pottery in Ishiagu
village in Ebonyi State south of Enugu, Nigeria.
The firing has been completed and the potters are removing the red hot pottery.
Here the women of the Bamogo family in Dablo are firing all of their pottery together.
Mrs. Bamoga poses with her pots. All African artists are extraordinarily creative.
The women who make pottery in Africa are among the best.
Look at any catalog of African pottery for sale
in Chicago, or New York, or San Francisco, and just imagine the margin between the prices
asked and the income of the potter who made it.
Scholars say that Africans donÆt have a word for art;
I say Westerners donÆt have a word for art. What is art?
Westerners say art is something thatÆs never used:
art for artÆs sake. What sort of art is never used?
All art is used. African art is heavily used.
My definition of art is something that is used
to express peopleÆs ideas about the world they live in.
In my mind this means Africans are the only people
who understand art and that we, the Westerners, are the only people who donÆt have a word