From earth to art: Exploring the richness of African pottery

Imagine holding a piece of history in your hands, a vessel that has carried the stories, traditions, the continent’s rich cultural heritage, artistic ingenuity, and soul of African communities for centuries– and then having a foreigner with very limited knowledge of the continent call it “worthless”. This was the reality of Africans. 

African pottery was considered worthless and of no cultural or financial value when European, Arab and American men wrote the early historical accounts of African societies. Bisila Noha, a ceramic artist and researcher, further explains that “as the Western traders, explorers, missionaries, colonial administrators, and anthropologists travelled through Africa, given their limited access to women’s activities, they took pottery for granted and considered it a conservative craft as opposed to metal work or wood carving, which universally are male trades. The result? African pottery was overlooked.”

African pottery – which was mostly built by women– was belittled and disregarded in favour of highly developed practices where pots are wheel-thrown and high-fired, that is, made by men. They didn’t consider it “art” and consequently, neither did their audiences in their home countries.

Storage pot handcrafted by Bamana potter via Barbara E. Frank

What pottery meant to Africans – A history

Despite European opinions at the time, pottery—to Africans— was integral to the continent’s cultural heritage. In West Africa, pottery was used for practical, magical, social, commemorative, and religious purposes. Among the Igbo, Ibibio, and Kalabari in eastern Nigeria, pots are used for musical instruments. In earlier times, before pipe-borne water and the refrigerator became a feature of everyday life, pots were used for various domestic chores, including storing and cooling water and preparing meals. Even in some societies, local beer or palm wine is brewed in large pots inserted halfway into holes dug in the ground. Beyond its functional use, African pottery carried profound symbolic meanings, told stories, and preserved the history of tribes. Each region’s vessel, sculpted with care and steeped in heritage, served as a testament to the rich cultural diversity of the continent. 

Clay pots used for cooking via Medium

African pottery was— and still is—a vessel for storytelling, passing down history, myths, and legends from generation to generation and played a crucial role in preserving cultural heritage, with pottery pieces serving as tangible links to the past. Nigerian potter, Ngozi Omeje’s first solo exhibition, Connecting Deep was an ode to her dead father. In her words, “It was a tribute to my father. The elephant is for me a figuration of my father whose accomplishments and personal attributes such as care, love and strength of will, are gigantic like the elephant.” Symbolically, Connecting Deep was a re-enactment of her story using figures of elephants to close the gap or yearning for a departed loved one. 

Connecting Deep via CCA Lagos

Symbols, geometric patterns, animals, and human figures were common designs representing different aspects of life, such as fertility, prosperity, and strength. The use of colours also carried significance, with red symbolising life and vitality, while white represents purity and spirituality.  In some cultures, like the Dakakari in northwestern Nigeria and the Akan in Ghana, pottery sculptures are used as part of the rituals connected with the dead. Among the Dakakari, pottery sculptures are erected on the graves of those marked for honour. 

Dakakari sculpture head for graves via Pinterest

 The Akan produce pottery heads that become the focus of attention during the post-interment ceremonies commemorating the departed, a more than three centuries-old tradition. These terracotta heads are often located at or around the deceased’s grave or in a dedicated shrine, where they are treated as a medium of exchange between the dead and the living. 

The evolution of African pottery

The history of African pottery dates back thousands of years, with evidence of pottery-making found in various parts of the continent. In West Africa, the Dogon women of Mali, are renowned for their intricate, geometrically patterned pottery, which they have been making for centuries. One of the constants in their traditional pottery production is that they are usually hand-crafted without using a wheel, utilising coiling and moulding techniques.

Storage Pot from Dogon via NOA living

With the rise of the Hausa and other Islamic-influenced cultures in the 11th century, pottery making in Nigeria became more specialised and focused on producing vessels for specific purposes, such as water storage and cooking. Although grouped in the pottery quarters of localities scattered across a huge area, they shared the same shaping technique– radiating pounding.

Hausa potters firing pots after moulding via Facebook

In the 14th century, the Nok culture of Nigeria produced intricate terracotta sculptures that are among the oldest in Africa, dating back to around 500 BCE. These sculptures often depicted human figures and animals and were used for religious and secular purposes and the main characteristic feature of the Nok terracottas is their hollow structure. They are sculpted from clay rolls and dried by firing in open air and closed ovens.  

Nok art via World History Encyclopedia

During the 16th century in East Africa, the Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania were known for their brightly coloured beadwork, often used to embellish their pottery. The Kikuyu people of Kenya made pottery using a coiling technique and decorated their vessels with incised designs.

Maasai beads via Stock Photo

Also in Southern Africa, the Zulu people became famous for their intricate beadwork and the creation of large, cylindrical storage vessels known as “ukhamba.” The Ndebele people of Zimbabwe also have a long tradition of pottery-making, creating elegant, brightly coloured vessels with geometric designs.

Unique Zimbabwe designs via Pinterest

Each historical period and region contributed to the evolution of pottery, with different techniques and styles emerging over time. Although the introduction of Western concepts has affected contemporary African art, pottery remains remarkably one art form that has demonstrated a capacity for flexibility, resilience, and synthesis. For example, many African potters continue to honour their traditional roots by using traditional techniques and motifs in their work. They use hand-building techniques, such as coiling or slab-building, to create their pottery, and they may decorate their pieces with traditional motifs such as geometric patterns, animal or plant designs, or figurative images.

However, in modern times, African potters have continued to explore new techniques and designs while drawing on traditional methods and motifs to create contemporary pottery art. Many contemporary African potters apply wheel-throwing techniques as opposed to hand-building techniques, such as coil building, slab construction, and pinching, particularly for creating functional pottery such as bowls and vessels. However, their respect for ancient African art remains undiminished. This fusion of tradition and innovation not only preserves the heritage of African pottery but also attracts a wider audience.

African Pottery gaining global recognition

While traditional African pottery continues to be valued for its cultural significance, it has also gained recognition in the global art market since at least the end of the 19th century. Today, African pottery pieces are exhibited in museums such as the National Museum of African Art, Die Neue Sammlung and Eskenazi Museum of Art, and private collections worldwide and these exhibitions allow for the recognition and exposure of African pottery artists to diverse artistic perspectives and fostered cross-cultural exchange and collaboration.

African Pottery Exhibition via Art Museum, University of Toronto

The late Nigerian potter, Ladi Kwali, was one of the first African potters to achieve international recognition as a coil pottery artist, known for making beautiful pots with high aesthetic and economic value. She was an iconoclast in pottery and received national honours as well as an honorary degree (Doctor of Letters). Further, her art has been memorialised on the 20 Naira note (Nigeria’s national currency). 

Laid Kwali via The Guardian

In addition to gaining a presence in international exhibitions, African pottery has become an important source of income for many African potters. The once “worthless” art is now a lucrative venture even for local potters with foreigners willing to pay well for authentic African Art. The sale of these pottery pieces provides economic opportunities and sustains the ancient craft.

Preserving the art of African pottery 

African pottery stands as a testament to the continent’s vast and diverse cultural landscape. Each piece of African pottery encapsulates a unique combination of historical influences, traditional symbolism, and artistic techniques passed down through generations. This art form holds deep significance within African communities, often conveying narratives of identity, spirituality, and daily life.

 By delving into the multifaceted meanings and stories behind African pottery, we can gain a profound understanding of the continent’s rich cultural tapestry and heritage. This makes it essential for Africans to cherish and preserve Africa and its rich culture, encompassing the beautiful art of pottery. By embracing and supporting African pottery, we not only preserve a rich cultural heritage but also empower communities and celebrate the timeless beauty of this ancient art form.



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