Property from a Private North American Collection
January 23, 04:26 PM GMT
80,000 - 120,000 USD
Highly Important and Rare Alkaline-Glazed Stoneware and Kaolin Clay Face Jug
Edgefield District, South Carolina
Height 6 3/4 in.
The Edgefield District of South Carolina became a booming center of stoneware production made by enslaved African Americans in the decades before the Civil War. This clay rich area in the westernmost part of the state had several sprawling plantations with high maintenance and operational demands, managed by hundreds of enslaved African Americans. With food, crops, and various liquids to store, the enslaved people began harvesting the clay and creating durable, utilitarian vessels covered in a successful alkaline-glaze making them impervious to pollutants.1 An example of this industrial pottery can be found in the current exhibition, Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina, item 561, Storage Jar, 1834 (“Concatination”), which was made by perhaps the most famous potter of Edgefield: David Drake (fig. 1). Widely known as simply “Dave” or “Dave the Potter” which is how he signed his works, he not only became revered for the large-scale of his works, which is a technical feat on its own, but also for the unusual and bold act of incising the sides of his works with words and phrases. A slave being literate in the early 19th century was a crime; a crime that Dave brazenly committed on multiple occasions. This oversized ovoid jar with molded rim and carrying handles is incised with the word “Concatination” and the date “12th June 1834”; the earliest example known in Dave’s hand. Vincent Brown, Charles Warne professor of American history and professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, speculates that the word “concatenation,” meaning “a series of interconnected things or events,” in relation to the 1834 date could be a sign of news spreading about the imminence of emancipation. With Nat Turner’s Rebellion taking place in Virginia a few years earlier in 1831 and slavery being abolished in the British empire two months later on August 1, 1834, it is possible that Dave heard news and could feel society was on the brink of immense change.2 This utilitarian jar thus reveals the extraordinary artistic talent and expression of the individual who made it as well as the political climate and culture of his time and place.
As time progressed, the emergence of face vessels – ceramic jugs decorated with stylized hand-molded facial features in high relief – coincided with the arrival of an illegal slave ship in 1858, which transported more than 400 slaves 50 years after the transatlantic slave trade had been outlawed in the United States. Over 100 of these slaves were sent to Edgefield to work in the potteries, which inspired a resurgence of African artistic expression, culture, and religion in the region. These face jugs bear a close resemblance to minkisi, which were anthropomorphic sculptures made in west-central Africa imbued with sacred energy and believed to house a spiritual entity. Edgefield historian, Wayne O’Brien, notes that these vessels were most likely used in a similar way, for religious purposes rather than for the utilitarian purpose of storing liquids. Strong evidence for the ritualistic use of face jugs is that many contain kaolin clay; the same clay that a ritual expert would insert into the minkisi, made in Africa, to summit the living spirit within (Figs. 2 and 3) . O’Brien further adds that it is unlikely that slaves outside of the Edgefield region were producing face jugs, as the abundance of kaolin clay, the established community of potters, and the access to excavating tools were combined elements that allowed for inspiration and execution of this form to flourish in this area. In regards to this particular jug, it is fascinating to see the accumulation of bright pink candle wax and other particles that might be used in a ritual at the bottom of the jug’s interior.
While there are distinctive features that the face jugs of Edgefield share in common, there appears to be no two face jugs that are completely alike - each is entirely unique. The three face jugs comprising item 568 in the Hear Me Now exhibition, circa 1850-1880, and figure 4 in Chipstone’s 2013 article, “African-American Face Vessels: History and Ritual in 19th-Century Edgefield” show a wide range of color, size, form, and expression (Figs. 4 and 5). While the rudimentary stoneware and kaolin clay material may be the same, the alkaline glazes provide a range in color from sandy brown to olive green and a darker brown. The idiosyncratic stylized faces are highly expressive, commonly showing wide-open eyes and mouths with barred teeth and curled lips, applied raised eyebrows and fanned ears, but all uniquely shaped, positioned, colored, and scaled. The face jug in review similarly shows a sandy brown colored alkaline glaze, wide-open bulging eyes, bared teeth, curled lips, and jutting ears, but uniquely contains modulated cheek bones.
After the Civil War the production of face jugs continued and became greatly acknowledged as an art form associated with African Americans from the Edgefield region of South Carolina. In 1882, James A. Palmer, an Irish-American photographer, took two racially charged photographs of pensive African-Americans with clasped hands next to Edgefield face jugs; a satirical response to the Aesthetic movement of the late 19th century led by fellow Irishman, Oscar Wilde that Palmer took one step further. William Holbrook Beard’s woodcut engraving entitled "The Aesthetic Monkey," featured on the January 28, 1882 cover of Harper’s Weekly (Fig. 6), served as an original of a satire of the poet and playwright Oscar Wilde, who traveled to the United States and Canada for an 11-month lecture tour in 1882. Palmer modeled his compositions and titles of “An Aesthetic Darkey,” and "The Wilde Woman of Aiken," (Figs. 7 and 8) on Beard’s engraving, but offensively swapped the glass vase for a face jug and the monkey for African Americans. While the same face jug is featured in both photographs, the 1882 date of the photograph nevertheless proves that these jugs were associated with African Americans and, as the title “Wilde Woman of Aiken” suggests, the Edgefield South Carolina region, which includes Aiken.
1 Alexandra Kozlakowski, “Press Release: Landmark Exhibition of Ceramic Objects from Old Edgefield District of South Carolina Opens September 9 at The Met,” September 8, 2022, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, accessed November 13, 2022, https://www.metmuseum.org/press/exhibitions/2022/hear-me-now
2 Adrienne Spinozzi, Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina, September 2022, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Audio Guide, 561. Storage Jar, 1834, (“Concatination”), date accessed November 13, 2022, https://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2022/edgefield
3 Adrienne Spinozzi, Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina, September 2022, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Audio Guide, 568. Face Vessels, ca. 1850-80, date accessed November 13, 2022, https://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2022/edgefield
4 Claudia Arzeno Mooney, April L. Hynes, and Mark M. Newell, “African-American Face Vessels: History and Ritual in 19th-Century Edgefield,” Ceramics in America 2013, Chipstone Journal, Milwaukee, WI, date accessed November 13, 2022, https://chipstone.org/article.php/537/Ceramics-in-America-2013/
5 Claudia Arzeno Mooney, April L. Hynes, and Mark M. Newell, “African-American Face Vessels: History and Ritual in 19th-Century Edgefield,” Ceramics in America 2013, Chipstone Journal, Milwaukee, WI, date accessed November 13, 2022, https://chipstone.org/article.php/537/Ceramics-in-America-2013/
6 "The Wilde Woman of Aiken," from the "Aiken and Vicinity" series, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Collection, Accession number 2018.629, date accessed November 13, 2022, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/814626