F A C E  V E S S E L S

BEHIND FACES

OF CLAY

Edgefield Face Vessels 

     Edgefield clay has had a long history.  The novice archaeologist soon learns that of all the ‘everyday’ things humankind kind makes, there is one thing that endures more than any other. It is fired clay.  An entire industry and a century of potters grew and gave rise to a great American folk art tradition.

 

     Pottery owner, Thomas J. Davies was the first to note that his slaves were making face vessels for their own purposes.  They worked, for the most part in anonymous oblivion, their past, their origins, all lost behind the brick wall of slavery. At least one enslaved potter arose from this background to achieve national fame. His name was David Drake, a potter who made massive jars, who despite the Federal ban on educating slaves, could read and write and carved elegant couplets and beautiful cursive dates and names on his work. 

 

     In 1858, when Dave was in middle age, the black community of slaves in Edgefield was set abuzz by the illegal importation of more than 200 Africans into the District.   Then, this group of Africans was mostly forgotten by a nation embroiled in a bloody conflict and its aftermath. That might have been the end of it, except in the later years of the 19th century, strange jugs began to appear in pottery collections and museums. Their staring eyes and grinning mouths of white kaolin clay intrigued historians—the jugs’ connection to this Kongolese group was still only speculated. 

 

    We discover how freed slaves turned master potters preserved their religious beliefs in clay, mastered the techniques that allowed them to transform the raw materials of their vision and their captivity into hardened vessels capable of carrying their dreams and their past in enduring form into the present. 

Kongo Connections:

 

       The African American community in Edgefield still holds on to memories of their ritual use and recalls tales of ‘conjure’ being practiced in Edgefield County. New insight into the culture and practices of 19th Century African American beliefs, coupled with the recent contributions of African American scholars, has led to connections between the spiritual practices of the Kongo and the face jug tradition. 

     “Migration, whether forced or voluntary, is a powerful fundamental dimension of the African American experience...Tobin and Dobard reveal that the enslaved Africans and their descendants were not hapless individuals , but ones who remembered or were taught their past, and through the materials available began to reconstruct themselves in the United states..” (Floyd Coleman Ph.D forward in “Hidden in Plain View”)

 

     We have had the remarkable opportunity to interview Pottery experts about the history of these vessels and met with local residents about their memories of the face jugs use and purpose amongst the Edgefield community. We share insight from African American and Kongo scholars that transport us from the sandy roads of Edgefield to the shores of the Kongo and back. Face jugs - Art and Ritual. 

ARTICLE IN CERAMICS IN AMERICA 2013

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