Dave the Potter at the Met!

Posted By Bill Payer on Jan 5, 2023 | 0 comments

South Carolina historical figure Dave the Potter is the focus of an exhibition at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Landmark Exhibition of Ceramic Objects from Old Edgefield District of South Carolina Opens September 9 at The Met

Exhibition Dates: September 9, 2022–February 5, 2023
Exhibition Location: The Met Fifth Avenue, Gallery 955, Robert Lehman Wing

 The landmark exhibition Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina opens at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 9, 2022. Focusing on the work of African American potters in the19th-century American South, in dialogue with contemporary artistic responses, the exhibition presents approximately 50 ceramic objects from Old Edgefield District, South Carolina, a center of stoneware production in the decades before the Civil War. It will include monumental storage jars by enslaved potter and poet David Drake, alongside rare examples of the region’s utilitarian wares, as well as enigmatic face vessels whose makers were unrecorded. Considered through the lens of current scholarship in the fields of history, literature, anthropology, material culture, diaspora, and African American studies, these vessels testify to the lived experiences, artistic agency, and material knowledge of the enslaved peoples of this area. 

The exhibition is made possible by Kathryn Ploss Salmanowitz, The Met’s Fund for Diverse Art Histories, the Terra Foundation for American Art, Anthony W. and Lulu C. Wang, The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation, and the Henry Luce Foundation.

It is organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

“As the first exhibition from The Met’s American Wing to highlight the work of enslaved makers, this project marks a pivotal moment in the Museum’s efforts to tell a more inclusive and expansive story of artistic expression, both past and present. These remarkable vessels help tell untold histories, while also raising complex questions regarding the collecting, display, and interpretation of objects made by enslaved individuals,” said Max Hollein, Marina Kellen French Director of The Met. “Displayed alongside the 19th-century works are contemporary works that reflect the spirit of, or were directly inspired by, Edgefield traditions. Taken together—along with the scholarly publication, audio guide, and upcoming public programs—this exhibition celebrates the creative practices of all artists on display as enduring tools of communication and activism.”

Exhibition Overview

In the decades before the Civil War, a successful alkaline-glazed stoneware industry developed in Old Edgefield District, a clay-rich area in the westernmost part of South Carolina. From the beginning, enslaved African Americans were involved with all aspects of this labor-intensive industry. The stoneware they made—durable, impervious, utilitarian vessels of varying sizes and forms essential for food preparation and storage—supported the area’s expanding population and was inextricably linked to the demands of a lucrative plantation economy.

Hear Me Now sheds light on the many contributions and lived experiences of the hundreds of men, women, and children who labored within slavery’s system of oppression by presenting a fuller picture of the region’s stoneware production. 

The exhibition opens with a display of 12 monumental masterpieces by Edgefield’s best-known artist, David Drake—known as Dave—who signed, dated, and incised verses on many of his jars, even though literacy among enslaved people was criminalized at the time. The verses bear witness to the joys, traumas, and lived experience of enslavement, echoing the prose of abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs.

Among the highlights is a selection of 19 regional face vessels—ceramic vessels embellished with hand-modeled facial features in high relief. Also referred to as face jugs, the emergence of these vessels coincides roughly with the 1858 arrival of a slave ship illegally transporting more than 400 captive Africans, some 50 years after the transatlantic slave trade had been outlawed in the United States. More than 100 of these individuals were sent to Edgefield, where many were put to work in the potteries. Growing evidence suggests that this late arrival of captive Africans served as a catalyst in the re-emergence of African-inspired art, religion, and culture in the region. Face vessels bear a close resemblance to minkisi, or ritual objects, which were important in West-Central African religious practices where ritual experts used kaolin as a sacred substance to facilitate communication between the living and the dead. Kaolin inserts are found in Edgefield face vessels, suggesting similar spiritual meanings. 

Speaking to Edgefield’s continued resonance, and offering connections to an otherwise fragmented past, the contemporary pieces in Hear Me Now include works by Black artists who have responded to or whose practice resonates with the Edgefield story, such as Simone Leigh, Adebunmi Gbadebo, Woody De Othello, Theaster Gates, and Robert Pruitt.

The exhibition also steps back centuries prior to European and American incursions on what is now the southeastern United States when Indigenous peoples had developed tools and techniques to take advantage of the area’s rich clay deposits. Within the galleries is an example of an earthenware bowl dating to around 1500 by an unidentified Woodland artist, on view alongside a contemporary vessel by Earl Robbins, a Catawba Indian Nation potter.”

There’s also a terrific recent article in the Post & Courier. CLICK HERE. Non-subcribers will hit a paywall, so here are some quick excerpts:

“EDGEFIELD — A short drive north from this small town near South Carolina’s western border sits a place called Pottersville.

On a crisp autumn day, a serene grassy ridge rises up under a deep blue sky. A single tree sways atop it. Downhill, close enough to throw a rock if you have a good arm, a grove shades a strip of land where a creek once flowed.

That creek formed the perfect conditions for a cracker-jack specimen of clay. Rich in a substance called kaolin, it was particularly hardy and impervious, making it superior in producing mass quantities of stoneware.

This was by no means some artful folly. Around two centuries ago, before the days of refrigeration, stoneware was a crucial commodity for storing comestibles like meat, pickles, flour and gin.

The clay was scooped up in vast pounded mounds to be turned and coiled and fired and glazed, done so by an industrial force of mainly enslaved laborers, who dug and hauled and shaped and finished thousands of pots.”


The artist formerly known as Dave

In addition to Landrum, enslaved potter David Drake later worked for others like Lewis Miles in the Edgefield District. Signing his works as Dave, he was once known as Dave Potter, Dave the Potter or Dave Pottery. After Emancipation, he identified himself by the surname Drake, after Harvey Drake, and remains known as David Drake.

Today, Drake’s work is celebrated not only for its exquisite craftsmanship but also for its rare contribution to American history.

A large man, Drake sculpted massive vessels with marked symmetry, and later with some assistance after losing a leg. And he also achieved something as monumental. On many of his pieces, the potter showcased his literacy, likely attained while working at Landrum’s newspaper. At a time when plantation owners feared revolts by the enslaved, it was illegal in South Carolina for them to read and write.

Drake signed and dated many of his later works in a handwriting executed with artful elegance in rolling cursive, and he graced them with poetry rich in humor, heart, reflection and, at times, despair. Each offers poignant proof of Drake’s individuality at a time when self-expression was systemically stripped from the enslaved.”

Dave the Potter has been a key element of the support DIHS provides to local schools. Check out this blog post from February 2019. https://dihistoricalsociety.com/?s=dave+the+potter

Discover South Carolina also has an article about David Drake… CLICK HERE

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