Archive for the ‘Africa’ Category

The World Wide Web

February 26, 2017

“Don’t it always go to show…”

While reading Alan Caiger-Smith’s book about luster pottery a little while ago, I came across a comment he made concerning the occasional odd pairing of “cryptic sayings” with seemingly unrelated floral imagery on 13th century luster ware from Kashand, Persia (that’s me on a Friday night – a real party animal!).  I was reminded of the unusual sayings scrawled around the rims of many Pennsylvania tulip ware pie plates.  Is this just a funny little bit of irony, or is there more to the story?

It shouldn’t be surprising that these two unique pottery types, separated by a continent, an ocean, six centuries, and distinct decorative characteristics, share a bit of irony.  They both stem from same root.  So much stems from this root.

What began as a 9th century interaction of painted decoration on white glazed pottery between T’ang China and Abbasid Iraq bounced back and forth between potters on every continent – except Antarctica – who both drew inspiration from, and offered inspiration to others.  This train of thought spanned the globe – sometimes as porcelain, sometimes as tin-glazed earthenware, sometimes as lusterware, sometimes as sgraffito decorated redware.  It defined entire cultures – sometimes in the guise of luxury goods, and sometimes as “folk” pottery.  It built and destroyed fortunes.  It prompted industrialization.  It supplied the needs of those on the fringes of empires.

Anything that pervasive for that long must have had a ‘thumb on the pulse’ of essential human creativity and expression.

The standard narrative says the idea collapsed around the end of the 19th century.  Modernism swept all before it.  In reality, this family of floral decorated pottery adapted and evolved in isolated pockets of production.  Soon enough, people began showing an interest in what happened before.  A revival began to brew, stimulated by appreciation of the stories places can tell via an explosion of tourism in the early 20th century.  An Arts and Crafts Era atmosphere of interest in the hand-made equally spiced things up enough for later generations to catch on (at least in parts of Europe and America).

Today, a small band of intrepid souls delves back into this venerable train of thought by making work in these earlier styles.  Sometimes they start from scratch, sometimes they pick up where others left off.  Will they be little seedlings that keep the genus alive and moving forward?

“…You don’t know what you got till it’s gone.” 

Readings:

Luster Pottery.  Alan Caiger-Smith.  New Amsterdam Books/New York.  1985.

Tulip Ware of the Pennsylvania-German Potters. Edward Atlee Barber.  Dover Publications/New York.  1926.

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A Thousand Years of Linguistics

May 15, 2016

caveat: the following train of thought happened entirely after the fact.  The plate shown here resulted purely from a confluence of design ideas, time constraints, and physical limitations.  Thus it ever was for the potter…

Charger, fish
If an efficient way to destroy a culture is to destroy it’s language (or simply kill off it’s  population), then a good way to honor a culture is to learn it’s language (and leave the people  be) – likewise for a culture’s artistic heritage.  But a culture’s visual language can take on a curious life of its own while traveling through the ages.

So, let’s talk delft.  Delft is a creole ceramic expression.  What began in the Arabian peninsula as a blue decorated tin-glazed response to white Chinese porcelain traveled back to China and then sprayed out in various forms, blanketing the globe.  Each stop along the way sprouted whole new styles of expression (like delftware), even as local potters freely drew from what came before.

How cool it would be to trace this language by following a single image or decorative device along it’s entire historical arc!  By seeing that image express change and/or constancy in the hands of an Arabian, Chinese, Indian, Yemeni, Persian, East and North African, Turkish, Spanish, Italian, French, Dutch, English, Irish, or Mexican potter.  Maybe curators, collectors, or scholars could identify such an image.  I can’t.  The big picture is too sprawling.

I’ll have to do like the old potters did and make my own ‘little picture.’  This one begins with a collision of two motives – to paint a fish (thus joining the ranks of fish-painting potters), and to wrap my head around an ‘Italianate’ delftware border pattern – combined with a diminishing inventory of blank plates as the clock ran out before a show.

Floating in the background were a 12th century Yuan Dynasty export porcelain bowl intended for the Indian Ocean trade, an early Dutch plate possibly made by an immigrant Italian faience potter, an obsession with Southwark floral imagery that creeps into every unguarded corner when I decorate, my brush and stick learning curve, a vague possibility that I may be related to early Delft potters, and a healthy dose of repetitive muscle strain.

Can one respectfully interpret the range, spirit, and boundaries of a historical style while still telling a unique story?  Who knows?  On the other hand nothing the potter makes exists within, or comes from, a vacuum.

The tale I offer goes something like this: “Here’s me wandering along in the language of pottery history.”

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Where We All Belong

December 20, 2015

Any visitor to the Grand Canyon can appreciate the enormity of space confronting them.  This expanse is as awe-inspiring to the eye as it is difficult for the mind to fully fathom.

Which, obviously, brings us to the complete redefinition of the ceramics scene during the era of England’s North American colonial adventure.  European potters of the time had embarked on a series of transformational explorations rarely matched before or since.  Every household aspired to own a piece of this ‘great leap forward.’  Marketing efforts by the likes of Josiah Wedgwood aimed to fulfill those aspirations.  It was a race to the top motivated by status, technology, and money… 

From this pinnacle of success one could look down, all the way down to the most marginalized, dispossessed communities in colonial society: indentured Irish and Scottish immigrants, decimated indigenous tribes, enslaved Africans. 

These communities also marveled at the fancy new wares.  But slaves, Indians, and indentured servants didn’t fit Staffordshire’s advertising profile.  So they did what people had done since Paleolithic times.  They dug up whatever local clay was available, hand-formed it into rudimentary but useable pottery, piled wood over it, and set the lot on fire.  A small batch of what is now called "Colonoware" soon emerged from the ashes. 

Colonoware is a unique pit-fired pottery type because much of it crudely but intentionally mimicked the Colonial era’s refined ceramics.  It was, in fact, a mash-up of West African, Late Woodland, and early Irish/Scottish styles, flavored with the full force of Stoke-on-Trent.

Archeology tells us marginalized communities occasionally owned cast-away pieces of refined ceramics, chipped, broken, or otherwise conferred upon them by society’s betters.  Archeology also tells us Colonoware was found in households at every level of colonial society, from the lowliest hovels to the kitchens of governor’s mansions.  

And why not?  Not every kitchen supply needed storing in fancy pottery.  Many cooks would even assert that certain dishes were best prepared in these crude earthenware pots.

Nobody held Colonoware, or those who made it, to any standard of beauty or status.  Nobody at the time even thought to give Colonoware a name.  But it spanned the chasm between the Industrial Revolution and the Paleolithic.  And it did so in the intimacy of colonial homes across all ethnic, social, and economic boundaries.  Except for that, Colonoware would hardly be worth noting at all.

Readings:

Catawba Indian Pottery.  Thomas John Blumer.  University of Alabama Press/Tuscaloosa AL.  2004.

Early New England Potters and Their Wares.  Lura Woodside Watkins.  Harvard Univ Press/Cambridge MA.  1968.

A New Face on the Countryside.  Indians, Colonists, and Slaves in South Atlantic Forests, 500-1800. Timothy Silver.  Cambridge University Press.  1990.

The Hit Parade: The Beat Goes On

May 10, 2015

Central Mosque Djenne 1984 Once again, a big thanks to Rob Hunter and his inspired Ceramics in America 2014 ‘top ten’ issue. 

If my "Hit Parade" were to be about looks alone, I might have included the creative slip applications of English Mocha ware, or the bizarre, twisted explorations of George Orr, or the brilliant cobalt blues of German Westerwald salt-fired stoneware, or the wood-fired stoneware of Richard Bresnahan with whom I did my apprenticeship, etc, etc. etc.

But the genius of this exercise is to explore pottery’s intimate walk with humanity through the ages.  And it invites musing on one’s own relation to this incredible field as well.  Narrowing that down to ten entries is challenge enough!

For example, I could have easily included the Absalom Steadman stoneware jug c. 1823 which received the highest price paid at auction for early American pottery, thus illuminating the status of historic pottery in today’s art economy.  The 1840 William Henry Harrison transfer print pitcher by David Henderson speaks volumes about the part ceramics played in the development of our national politics.  The 11th century Central Mosque in D’jenne, Mali is the world’s largest adobe clay structure.  (But what’s that silly tourist doing there?)  Potters for Peace’s Filtron water purifier project highlights the enormous contributions of pottery to rural community development efforts.  The black pottery of Maria Martinez offers a classic example of pottery and cultural revitalization.  And the curious parallels between Richard Bresnahan’s unique wood firing process and astro-physics is fodder for an entire book in itself.

Every picture tells a story.  So does every pot.  The thing is, when it comes to pottery history’s ‘top 10,’ the story itself is quite often where it’s at.

And the beat goes on

Art History

January 4, 2015

Professor Christopher Roy of the University of Iowa opened my eyes to the place of African efforts in the art world pantheon.  His lesson began with a look at H.W. Janson’s quintessential art history text book “The History of Art.”

The historical overview in Janson’s sweeping tome went like this: Chapter One: Magic and Ritual, the Art of Prehistoric Man, Chapter Two: The Art of Egypt, Three: the The Art of the Near East, then the Aegean, the Classical Greeks, the Romans, Mediaeval art, the Renaissance, the Mannerists, etc. on up to today.  Here was humanity’s aesthetic progress rising from primordial beginning to sophisticated present.

Janson’s opening “prehistoric” chapter included several images of African wood carved sculptures alongside images of Paleolithic cave paintings.  Professor Roy pointed out that all the African sculptures had been made within 50 years of the book’s publication.  Hmmm.

Here was a bad attitude hiding in plain sight.

Later, when studying redware, I found that old sources of information can offer more than stale, ossified opinions.  For example, there is something fresh in reading about “current trends in American pottery,” including an “up and coming” woman named Adelaide Alsop Robineau.

Of course, it doesn’t always come out roses.  Charles Fergus Binns holds a respected position as the founder of Alfred University’s vaunted ceramics program in 1900.  Might a pottery book in his words offer interesting kernels of insight?  His opening chapter on pottery’s historical overview mirrored Hanson’s ‘primordial to sophisticated’ trope.  Binns began with a discussion of American Indian pottery:

“It must always be an open question how much credit for artistic feeling can be given to primitive races…  Crude and unprepared clays were used for the most part but the makers could scarcely have been conscious of the charming color-play produced by the burning of a red clay in a smokey fire.  The pottery of the Indians is artistic in the sense of being an expression of an indigenous art and much of it is beautiful, though whether the makers possessed any real appreciation of beauty is open to doubt.”

He then proceeded from this ‘primordial’ beginning to Classical Greek pottery, then the Romans, etc. etc. etc…

Old knowledge is a valuable resource, not to be ignored lightly.  Just never confuse old knowledge with bankrupt ideas.

Readings:

The History of Art, Second Edition.  H.W. Janson.  Prentis Hall/New York.  1977.

The Potter’s Craft.  Charles F. Binns.  Van Nostrand Co./NY.  1910.

Cowboys and Indians

September 8, 2013

First time visitors to the US often travel with (somewhat) irrational fears.  Will gangsters shoot it out while de-boarding the plane?  Our global cultural projection of carnage, sex and twisted history runs deep.  In 1991 a group of Nicaraguan women working in the Matagalpa black pottery tradition traveled with some of this baggage to visit Tewa black pottery descendants of Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso, NM. 

The Potters for Peace facilitated trip was predicated on a question: What would happen if women from very different rural backgrounds who work in a similar style were left alone together for a week?  PFP’s Ron Rivera served as translator and guide. 

Hand-built “black pottery” is burnished to a high gloss, pit fired, and smoked until jet black.  Women throughout the Americas and parts of Africa have made black pottery for hundreds, maybe thousands of years.  Modern North American black pottery tends to be much more polished and lower fired (thus blacker) than originally.  It’s now considered primarily a decorative art.  

Black potters are intensely proud of their work.  Maria Martinez is perhaps the most famous North American practitioner.  Mexicans might counter that Doña Rosa Real who revived the Oaxaca black pottery tradition in the 1950’s  holds the ‘most famous’ title.  Maria Martinez resuscitated the almost forgotten Pueblo style while working with archeologist Dr. Edgar Lee Hewett at the Frijoles Canyon excavation in 1908.  Maria’s pottery even made Bernard Leach eat crow “…it belonged to America.  North America – it was arresting.”  (An irrelevant point, but I couldn’t resist.)

But women of the northern mountainous coffee growing region of Matagalpa, Nicaragua say their black pottery making reaches back, unbroken from mother to daughter for over a millennium.  Their work occupies a highly regarded position in the Nicaraguan ceramic world.  Like other black potters  they tend to stick together.  And like other rural Nicaraguan’s they rarely travel far from home.

The New Mexico trip was an eye opener for everyone involved.  The Tewa’s were blown away at the delicacy of form and the superior mirror black polish of the Matagalpan pottery.  The Nica’s were astonished at the Tewas’ playful variations of form and gloss, and at their astronomical prices. 

But another thing perplexed the Nica’s.  One of them took Ron aside.  If these women they had come to visit were real “American Indians,” where were the feathers and tomahawks?

Readings
The Living Tradition of Maria Martinez.  Susan Peterson.  Kodansha International/New York.  1977.

 

Tribute

February 13, 2011

The Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I is considered one of the main causes of World War II.  Nazi leaders used the economic and political stress imposed on Germany to push their twisted program to it’s disastrous conclusion.  But harsh terms have been exacted from the vanquished throughout history, leading to the observation that wars are never won or lost.  They just continue.

The victors write history, but the vanquished remember it…

Anyway, up until the mid 19th century in northeastern Congo and southern Sudan, another form of tribute was exacted.  Vassals were required to give pottery to their overlords in Azande and Mangbetu controlled territories.  This “tribute pottery” was a unique class of unusual, individualized earthenware bottle forms.  These bottles weren’t made for any other purpose.  And their makers generally specialized in crafts other than pottery.

Azande rulers in particular didn’t collect this tribute to hoard away or show off.  They used tribute pottery as gifts to members of their court, neighboring chiefs, and visiting dignitaries such as European explorers, missionaries and medical personnel.

By the 1920’s European colonial rule replaced Azande political power.  Pottery as tribute ended.  But the allure of what was formally a uniquely prestigious possession kept production of these forms alive.  The expressive qualities of tribute pottery allowed potters to explore whole new ways of creating forms beyond the traditional categories that previously defined their work.

It would seem that tribute pottery was a gift that kept on giving.

Just imagine the world we would be living in if, instead of billions of dollars worth of unpayable reparations and huge chunks of territory, France and England demanded shipments of Meissen porcelain and Westerwald stoneware in 1919.

Readings:
First Art: Historic African Ceramics. Douglas Dawson.    C & C Printing/Hong Kong.  2009.

A World at Arms.  A Global History of World War II. Gerhard Weinberg.  Cambridge University Press/Cambridge, England.  1994.