The Serendipity of the African Pots

Decades ago, I registered for a summer evening course in African Art at the School of Art, the University of Manitoba where I now teach.  The course was taught by Susan Moffat who had her MA in African Studies from the London School of Oriental and African Studies.  What captivated me was her first-hand knowledge of the material objects, her love for the people of African, and her immense enthusiasm.  She also was the only art history instructor I ever had that brought in physical objects that we could examine.  That course was a sea-changing moment for me, and it was only then that I decided to continue my studies at the graduate level.

Years later, Susan Moffat was donating some of her African collection to the Museum of Man and Nature in Winnipeg when she decided to gift me two handmade woodfired vessels and a beautiful piece of local textiles (purple, white, and black) that was wrapped around the bottom of one to keep it steady.  I was so honoured by this present.  The two hand-formed vessels with their African motifs lived on top of a Chinese cabinet in my office when I was not showing them to students in my History of Ceramics class.

Traditional African ceramic vessels were made to be used and to add beauty to the homes.  In Barbara E Frank’s research on these domestic pots, used for both cooking and storing food, she stated that they also “carry symbolic import central to social identity, economic and political status, ritual practice, and belief”.  Frank further emphasised that if wanted to understand those roles that it is absolutely necessary to know more about the individuals who made them, most often women, and the social, economic, and the spiritual contexts that they . were created.  For all of us that have not studied the iconography (symbols) of African ceramics, Hunt stresses that our understanding of the vessels will be compromised because we cannot read the ‘script’.  Indeed, many of these vessels carry a religious significance beyond our grasp.  I am certainly one of those people.  My pleasure was imaging the women gathering the clay, taking out the stones, and coiling or pounding it on a mould.  I could close my eyes and imagine them firing the works with a bonfire,  sometimes I could even smell the smoke.  In all of this, I hope that the use of plastics is curtailed and that the local ceramic and textile traditions survive just as the culture of these countries needs to be maintained.

Last summer, a young African man came to visit me in my office.  By chance, a graphic design programme he was using for his class project could not be read by my computer, and he had come in to show me his work.  After looking over his assignment, his eyes began to scan my office, looking at the ceramics.  At one point, he stopped and pointed to the two African pots and the textile.  To my amazement, he declared, “These were made in my village”!  We took the vessels down so that he could handle them.  “Would you like some clay to make your own pots”?  He nodded yes, enthusiastically.  He even came down to the ceramics class meeting with some of the students and taking a keen interest in what they were doing.  After a few weeks, some handmade pieces appeared, and they were fired.  The students helped with those.  And then I did not see him again until one day there was a bag hanging on my office door.  In it were two pieces of beautiful African textiles.

The young man’s name is Opie, and he had made a trip to his home in Nigeria.  While there he purchased two pieces of fabric made by the women in his community for me.  What treasures!  I told Susan about this today.  That is what propelled me to write this blog today.  She believes that the spirit of the maker has travelled through time and space and that her decision to pass these objects that she had collected so many years ago, had a good home.  Of course, I am the one who is so grateful for Susan and Opi.  They opened my eyes to the beauty of African art.  I hope that the two pots with their fabrics will travel through my family and have many more stories and connections in the decades to come.  If only it were possible to sit down and talk to the women who made them!