For many African cultures, a ceramic vessel means more than just a “pot.” As this exhibition demonstrates, it is an object of economic and social value, a visualization of spiritual beliefs, and a compelling medium for expressing and playing out issues of gender. Pottery and its associated activities permeate traditional African societies and village life, just as the mass media invade all aspects of Western daily life. By investigating the ceramic practices of several African societies, we can gain a fuller understanding of the significance of visual culture in Africa, and how Africans mold gender issues into artistic forms.
This exhibition presents thirteen African pots from the Tang Teaching Museum’s permanent collection, organized according to three gender-specific themes: (1) domesticity, ceramic techniques, and economy; (2) African pottery’s relationship to the female body; and (3) ritual practices and the gendering of the spirit realm. In addition, the exhibition features a shrine dedicated to Mami Wata, a water goddess worshiped widely throughout Africa, and whose shrines often call for the addition of figurative pottery.
These groupings should be thought of as fluid rather than fixed. Consider the Bamana pot exhibited here: its raised-relief animal motifs would typically indicate a ritual function, but on this example they bear no ritual significance. Instead, this domestic pot used for storing and serving water features lizard and snake motifs merely to suggest its water-related function.
As with the Bamana pot illustrated here, the intersections of these themes also allow the six black Zulu beer pots on view to participate in any or all of the exhibition’s three categories, an interplay highlighted by the pots’ gender-specific production and use. Although women create the pots and often control beer consumption, men offer them as bridewealth, so this duality collapses the borders between the domestic and ritual spheres. Ultimately, these pots embody a multiplicity of economic, social, and spiritual meanings and uses, all communicated through their aesthetic form.