Ceramics, Commodities & Commerce RISD Museum Of Art
By Karla Klein Albertson
PROVIDENCE, RI — While many exhibits attempt a scholarly approach to beautiful containers, “Trading Earth: Ceramics, Commodities, and Commerce” at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum of Art takes a critical look at tea as well as the pot. Not just who brewed and drank it, but who picked and transported it around the world. Trade routes were the global network of ancient times, and when the words “supply chain issues” hit the headlines, it becomes clear that the same fragile apparatus is at work today.
Commodity demand can be tied to basic necessities like grain or fabric, but it’s often based on the much more powerful motivator of desire. In the past, shipments went for spices and incense, chocolate and coffee. In the ancient world, frankincense and myrrh had the same value as gold.
The remains of amphorae that once held wine and oil today mark the extent of the Roman Empire’s influence. The intensive use of bonded labor made the cultivation, processing and transportation of these products possible. Today, the demands for rare metals and computer chips and the desire for everything from diamonds to drugs are creating tragedies at both ends of the chain.
Since “Trading Earth” tries – through ceramics – to solve some of these deeper issues, it is useful to read the mission statement in full:
“The world’s raw materials that derive their life from the earth, such as tea, or physically form its composition, such as clay, can be directly consumed in their natural state or transformed into finished products. They may be traded locally or exported to distant markets via international trade routes. Whether basic or luxury, commodities important to trade and commerce throughout the centuries have simultaneously necessitated, inspired and informed the production of ceramics associated with their consumption. The long-distance multi-directional transport of ceramics has resulted in the diffusion, reciprocity and appropriation of ceramic processes, technology, design and ornament.
These products and goods are used and enjoyed gastronomically, aesthetically, socially, artistically and culturally by many types of markets and consumers. They are also frequently cultivated, harvested and produced by the bonded, indentured or exploitative labor of human beings, damaging or endangering the well-being of their person, their communities and their environment. Drawing on nearly 8,900 ceramic objects from the museum, this exhibition centers the intersection of global trade and ceramics through the exploration of a dozen products.
Curator Elizabeth Williams was the driving force behind the selection and presentation of more than 200 objects drawn primarily from the RISD Museum’s collections of decorative, ancient, Native American and Asian arts. In a conversation with Weekly Antiques and Arts, she explained that the institution had sought a new way of looking at its collections in light of current social justice movements: “These things resonate very strongly in our museum, with the college and with the students as well. With regard more particularly to decorative arts objects, they are made of precious materials, they belong to a certain class, to a certain type of people. The focus is on who owned them, how they were used, and what they served. And we wanted to look at the look of how that content got on the table.
She continued with this question that everyone asks: “How did sugar become so popular? People think of wonderful sweets – candies and cakes that are part of our lives. But the other side of this is the number of people who were enslaved to do the backbreaking work of growing, harvesting and processing sugar cane. This literally increased the number of slaves because of the growing popularity of sugar.
“And it’s still with us. So many of these staples – sugar, alcohol, caffeine, tobacco – are all things we are still warned about overconsumption today! This exhibition was shaped by the idea, how to bring a fuller, wider, more complete picture of these basic products, like coffee, that we consume every day without asking ourselves too much why? How did these things get to our tables – in our cups and in our bowls?
To fulfill this objective, the gallery – which normally features Meissen figures – has been transformed. “I think we have about 8,000 ceramic items and about 6,000 of them are in the decorative arts department,” Williams continued. “There are so many, and people know which ones are usually on display. When you think of the fascinating items that aren’t on display, we really wanted to show them. It is an interdepartmental exhibition. I’m the curator, but we have stuff from our Ancient, Asian, and Native American art departments.
In the process, the curator made some discoveries: “Some of the fanciest and cleverest things that came up were the incense burners. There’s one that’s a ceramic porcelain globe with piercings – it’s is absolutely fantastic. I don’t know if it’s ever been shown. The juxtaposition of these items within the commodity crate is going to be a deal breaker.
“There will be things next to each other that belong to very different times and cultures. You will be able to see the differences, but I also think looking through the prism of the merchandise will make things come together. Among the products explored are tea, coffee, sugar, chocolate, spices, incense, tobacco and alcohol.
Among the exhibits are four examples from the extensive collection of ceramics formed by Eliza Greene Metcalf Radeke (1854-1931), who served as president of the Rhode Island School of Design from 1913 to 1931. Her mother, Helen Adelia Rowe Metcalf (1830-1895 listen)) was co-founder of RISD in 1877 and its first director. Radeke and his collection, many of which have been donated to the museum, deserve a future exhibition and a catalog in their own right; she was a pioneer in the field of American folk art. But this time, visitors will be able to see a colorful enameled pewter Moroccan pilgrim’s flask from the 1800s.
Curator Williams described many ways viewers can interact with the objects and themes behind their assemblage: “I hope we do this in a way that is accessible on many levels. When entering the gallery, you can look at the objects, you can look at the copy of the label. There will be lots of information in the gallery, and then there will be an easily accessible online component with even more information.
“There you can search for more information about specific objects, and it will also connect you to the audio component of this exhibit. It will probably last about two years; the end date is January 28, 2024. The idea is that this is an exhibition that you can enter and take a look at and then if you want to know more you can go online in the gallery and really dive into particular things.
Williams concluded: “This will also be an educational exhibit for our K-12 classrooms, RISD students and other higher education students. You think about what a faculty member might come to talk about. They could talk about commerce in general, they could spend an hour talking about a single subject. We hope this becomes a resource that people use for a longer period of time and also helps us understand how people might use an exhibit like this. It’s unlike anything shown in this gallery. While presenting a normal museum exhibit, we hope to offer a truly rich and in-depth resource for education at all levels.
The Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art is located at 20 North Main Street. For more information, 401-454-6500 or www.risdmuseum.org.