Wednesday, July 7, 2010

African pots are remnants of a lost tradition

Clay vessels are collectible and precious art

Express Staff Writer

Gail Severn exhibits “Objects of Desire: Historical African Ceramics” through Aug. 4 at Gail Severn Gallery in Ketchum. Photo by Willy Cook

Losing cultural traditions in the modern world of technology, research and archiving does not seem possible. However, traditions are being lost all the time, and in Africa cultural practices vanish without leaving any trace except for folklore. Douglas Dawson has spent a great deal of time recovering African ceramics as well as learning about their origins and how they are a fast-disappearing art form.

"These are not archeological finds, which makes them rarer," Dawson said. "African people just stopped making them."

Dawson is a steward for the African pots and vessels he has found and offers the rare objects to museums, collectors and galleries. Dawson has curated the show "Objects of Desire: Historical African Ceramics" at the Gail Severn Gallery in Ketchum through Aug. 4. The show features a variety of items including a 10th- to 14th-century ritual vessel from the Niger River Delta in Mali to an 11th- to 14th-century Mali bedpost and several 20th-century bottles and ritual vessels from Cameroon. In addition, there are Nupe Culture storage jars, Burkina Faso storage jars and Dagari water jars, as well as figures and vessels hailing from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Yoruba Culture all made by women.

Dawson said religious conversions to Christianity and Muslim beliefs had African people abandon making the pots because the objects were a type of document with its surfaces inscribed with what had become to be considered profane and deviant thinking. The vessels served as symbols for fertility and were also consider sacred, embodying ancestors or mythological beliefs.

"It's impossible to know everything about them because the knowledge disappeared two to three generations ago," Dawson said. "We learned a lot by learning nothing—that it's too late to uncover information."

The pots are constructed with basic ceramic techniques of earthenware created in a fire pit with low fire.

"They are burnished, not glazed," Dawson said. "And with no sense of academia, the pots have classic proportions."

He said that for a museum, the pieces are very inexpensive, whose origins and significance are not controversial since so little is know about them.

"Contemporary art collectors appreciate them and so do contemporary artists," he said. "Africans are still making pots, but they are generic."

Dawson said the aesthetic of clay explored by Africans is more impressive than that of any other cultures he knows, and the traditional ceramics, which are almost gone in Africa, represent an important art form.

Sabina Dana Plasse:

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