The Met shows incredible ceramics from the often anonymous slave potters who worked in the American South

The Metropolitan Museum of Art held a major exhibit centered around 50 ceramic objects made by enslaved African-American potters who were active in far western South Carolina in the 19th century.

“In the decades before the Civil War, a thriving alkaline glazed stoneware industry developed in the clay-rich Old Edgefield neighborhood,” the museum said in a statement. And while common depictions of slavery focus on the backbreaking labor of harvesting cash crops, the “Hear Me Now” exhibit shows that slaves were also highly skilled artisans.

“When I talk to the artists about it, they’re still in disbelief that these jars were made, that they survived the kiln firing,” said co-curator Adrienne Spinozzi, assistant curator for research at the American wing of the Met, from unique ceramic housewares, which became a lucrative cottage industry in the plantation economy.

face jug, by an unrecorded potter, attributed to Miles Mill Pottery (1867-1885), Old Edgefield District, South Carolina, Alkaline glazed stoneware with kaolin glaze. Photo: Hudgins Family Collection, New York.

Michigan-based historian Jason Young co-curated the exhibit, contributing years of research and writing about the area’s pottery-rich past. Young also hosted a show about Theaster Gates’ engagement with this story, titled “The Clay Sermon”. Ethan Lasser, from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (where the exhibition goes next), completed the curatorial team.

Planning for the show began in 2017, when the Met acquired a face jug from an unregistered Edgefield potter for their permanent collection galleries. Spinozzi saw the object as a way to have conversations about “American history and those really difficult, complex, and challenging times in our country’s past.” She then traveled to South Carolina to further her research.

The exhibition opens with 12 massive pots by David Drake, perhaps Edgefield’s best-known potter. Despite social restrictions against the education of enslaved communities, Drake learned to read and write, developing exquisite handwriting, and he engraved a wide range of simple literature on his works, as well as signing and dating them. A pot of June 1834 indicates “concatenation”, that is to say a system of interconnection. Forty of the jars in the exhibit have similar “verses” engraved on them, sometimes poetic or biblical, sometimes informative (“this jar is for pork”) or even declarative, proclaiming “I did this”.

Detail of work by Dave, later recorded as David Drake, American, ca. 1801–1870.

Nineteen regional “face jugs” follow Drake’s works. These vessels, not commercial objects, were fashioned to have faces with expressions in high relief. They appeared around 1858, half a century after the transatlantic slave trade was banned, but in the same year a ship arrived with 400 captive Africans, 100 of whom went to the Edgefield Potteries. Many face jugs are believed to resemble minkisi, ritual objects from Central and West African religious practices.

“Hear Me Now” connects this story to the present moment by including contemporary black artists who resonate with Edgefield’s story, including Simone Leigh, Adebunmi Gbadebo, Woody De Othello, Theaster Gates and Robert Pruitt.

Theater doors, Signature study (2020). Courtesy of the artist and White Cube, London
Photo: © White Cube/Theo Christelis.

“As curators, we brought a different set of questions to the material,” Lasser told Artnet News. “We were also organizers, tapping into our own networks to engage friends and colleagues in the act of interpretation.”

Scholarship on enslaved artists in American history has been slim. A team from the Met traveled with a restorer to South Carolina in 2019 to take samples of residue inside the vessels beyond their excessively thin necks. They are now working with outside experts to find out what these enigmatic facial jugs actually contained.

“We’re building this database that includes interior photography,” Lasser added. “We’re looking at these objects, looking at their stories, trying to see if we can trace them back to the African American community.”

Storage Jar (c.1845), by unrecorded potter, Trapp & Chandler Pottery (1843–c.1850), Old Edgefield District, South Carolina, Alkaline glazed stoneware with iron slip. Photo: Courtesy of the Collection of C. Philip and Corbett Toussaint.

“We want viewers to come away with an appreciation for the full breadth and depth of this compelling material,” Young added via email. “We want them to connect with the people who created this material, even while living under a harsh regime of racism and American slavery.”

To pursue this goal, on December 3, the Met will host a public program called “Learning from Edgefield”, which will have discussions with historians, artists and museum officials on best practices for working with heritage sites. African-American culture like Edgefield, and how museums collect, display, and interpret the objects of enslaved makers.

“I look forward to the conversations the show opens,” Lasser said, “about Edgefield and ceramics, slavery and industry – maybe even about museums and collecting today.”

“Hear Me Now” is on view until February 5, 2023 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It then travels to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (March 4 to July 9, 2023), the University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor (August 26, 2023 to January 7, 2024) and the High Museum of Art, Atlanta (February 16-May 12, 2024).

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