The Earth is Watching Us
THE EARTHENWARE VESSELS on this exhibition were selected for their beauty and their resonance with the woven wire-works made by contemporary artists of the Threads of Africa project. Wire is woven and shaped around clay pots and this support remains latent in the final forms – innovative wire artworks that are neither pots nor baskets but have elements of both.
Innovation may be rooted in tradition and the inclusion in this exhibition of traditional earthenware pots from Iziko’s Social History Collections invites viewers to look at them anew and think about the varied narratives they embody.
Although widely associated with agriculture and a relatively settled way of life, pottery was also made by semi-nomadic pastoralists. The history of earthenware in North Africa can be traced back over eight thousand years. In southern Africa it has been found in archaeological sites dating to the first century AD and varying styles of pottery have played a role in tracing cultural affinities and movements of people in the sub-continent. In general, throughout Africa, women are the potters and keepers of the knowledge that ensures the continuity of their art.
The primary narrative of earthenware is transforming raw earth into clay through the work of human hands, the skillful shaping of malleable material into a variety of forms, and the volatile process of firing that creates durable vessels for many domestic and ritual uses. The transformation of earth by fire is both practical and wondrous. Like the smelting of ore in a furnace to produce metal, the shaping and firing of raw clay to create earthenware is metaphorically linked to birth. Once fired, pots are akin to bodies, as reflected in the ways they are described with mouths, necks, waists and feet. Their forms and decoration bear the imprint of the hands that shaped them, as well as the patina of use. Through their special association with women, pots may carry symbolic meanings in marriage relationships, and as containers of offerings and libations they mediate connections with the ancestral spirits. In many places the decorative motifs on earthenware are echoed by patterning on walls and floors - there is a consonance of pottery and place.
No longer in situ, earthenware pots in museums embody narratives of collecting and curatorial intent. If there is a loss of one context, another is gained. Once preserved in a collection, earthenware vessels have the potential to evoke new meanings and, as shown by this exhibition, they may be re-animated by new contexts and conversations.
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