Articles & Reviews
Gender, Pottery Technology and Development Projects
In this paper I will argue that the gendered nature of ceramic technology has been insufficiently taken into account in many development projects. The dominant ideology in studio pottery with its emphasis on wheel throwing and wood-fired kilns has often pervaded thinking among those people, many of them potters themselves, who are invited to advise on technological improvements or marketing of traditional pottery. I want first to address the general arguments and then to look in more detail at two case studies. Finally I will consider briefly some alternative models of pottery development.
Historically and geographically pottery is a highly gendered activity.1 In most of Africa, among the indigenous peoples of the Americas and throughout large parts of South East Asia and the western pacific, pottery is traditionally a female occupation allied to very specific forms of ceramic technology using hand-building or non-wheel systems of potting. Firing is in open bonfires or sometimes in simple kilns.
Such women's traditions continue to be very important in many parts of the world where there is still a need for functional pottery such as cooking pots, water storage jars and sometimes even roof tiles. As electricity and running water in houses become available the need for these products diminishes although the affection for them is often maintained. In some places these traditional techniques have successfully been mobilised to create a major new source of income by catering for a craft or collector's market. By far the best example of this is Pueblo pottery of New Mexico in the USA which underwent this transformation in the early twentieth century.2
Let us look at some of these technologies and their advantages and disadvantages. Firstly open firing: Western assumptions about bonfired pottery are deeply ingrained.
In a recently published book entitled The Complete Potter (Mattison 2003 p.189), the chapter on 'Kilns and Firings' opens with the statement: 'before any object can become truly ceramic it must be fired in a kiln', and goes on to say, in a slightly contradictory way a little further down, 'In many cultures around the world, bonfire firing is still the most common form of baking pottery' (my italics). The use of the word 'baking' rather than 'firing' suggests that there is something domestic and perhaps not quite proper and professional about it. Furthermore there is the suggestion that unless pottery is fired in a kiln it will not be 'truly ceramic'. I use this merely as one example among many that I could have found that seems to betray an underlying mindset about systems of firing.
There are many different forms of open firing which include firing in a clamp, where the pots are piled up on top of the ground, firing in a pit or building a low supporting wall of bricks or old pots to protect the pottery as it fires. In some places the clamp is covered with shards of pottery to retain the heat. The fuel may be wood, peat, grass, dung, rice husks or even old tires - in general what is available locally.
The limitations of an open firing are:
The advantages are:
In theory, in kiln firing, the fuel is used economically as the fire is contained and the heat directed at the pottery. In practice, however, kiln firing requires abundant quantities of fuel, normally wood, and usually has a long firing period. The heating of the kiln itself also consumes considerable heat. For temperatures over 1100 C wood needs to be used, but kilns can fire using waste materials - but few people even seem to consider this. This is certainly an area that needs to be looked at much more.4
As already suggested, it is very easy for writers and observers, used to thinking of kilns as an essential piece of technology for potters, to assume that firing in an open fire is a risky and precarious business. This assumption is further encouraged by the gender of the potter, so often a woman working in a domestic environment with little influence or 'cultural capital'. All ceramic firing carries risks and, in fact, experts in open firing achieve very consistent results and have excellent systems of re-cycling seconds for later firings.
Wood-fired kilns, on the other hand, are notoriously inconsistent. Many studio potters, however, are devotees of this system because of the lively surface effects that can be achieved in glazes.5 Here is Bernard Leach, the guru of British studio pottery for much of the twentieth century, writing in A Potter's Book , 1940.
But perhaps much more significant to my argument is that wood-fire kiln building is positioned as a heroic 'macho' activity and Leach writes evocatively about that.
Although the influence of the writing and work of Bernard Leach has wained since the 1980s, his ideology has been far-reaching among the potters and continues to hold sway in some quarters. His book has gone through many re-printings and is frequently referred to as the potter's 'bible'.
Firing temperatures and types of ceramic
Firing temperature is crucial to the quality of a piece of pottery. At 350-600 C the ceramic change takes place (Hamer & Hamer, 1991, pg.128) meaning that the clay will not disintegrate if water is applied. All pottery has to be fired sufficiently to reach this point. Ware fired between 350-1100 C and with a porosity of more than 5% is classified as earthenware and is rendered non-porous by glazing in a second firing. A second level of ceramic change is vitrification (1100-1300 C) where some of the particles are melted like glass and eventually the body is completely non-porous. Stoneware and porcelain bodies require more careful preparation and are fired to higher temperatures (normally 1200 and 1300 C respectively).
Thus kilns are not necessarily preferable for greater efficiency but for their ability to fire at a higher temperature using finer clay and glazes. They make pottery that is more refined and generally more adapted for an elite market or more specialised needs. For domestic functional pottery low-fired ware is as good if not better. Hand-built pottery is often best not fired at too high a temperature as vitrification for certain clays causes warping and makes the ware very brittle. Thus the lower temperature can be an advantage.
Wheel-throwing and hand-building
Hand-building is relatively slow compared to throwing on a wheel but skilled hand-builders work remarkably fast and can make a medium sized pot in well under half an hour. Different systems used include pulling up, moulding, beating with a paddle and coiling.6 Many potters use a combination of these methods often balancing the pot on a simple turntable or saucer to allow easy rotation while working. Clay is usually prepared quite quickly, the stones picked out or some additional material added as a temper. The relative unrefined nature of the clay body, its 'openness', helps it to withstand the thermal shock of open firing and cooking over a direct flame.
Wheel throwing needs far more careful preparation of the clay to create a body that is sufficiently smooth to throw. Additional time may be involved in this part of the process. Levigation tanks may be required where the clay is mixed with water and the finer material is taken off the surface.
A potter's wheel is a piece of specialised equipment and represents a capital cost. It is not necessarily easy to make or keep in working order. This is a perennial problem in development projects where special parts may be required to maintain equipment. Wheels are most commonly associated with workshop conditions rather than domestic production and thus the introduction of wheels often creates new work routines where the potter is paid a wage and 'goes out to work', rather than potting flexibly in the home environment. Such new arrangements clearly have gender implications, as women may not be free to be away from the home for long periods of the day. Furthermore it has often been found easier to train someone in a technique from the start rather than to ask someone to re-train in a new technique. Thus in many cases the introduction of wheels and kilns creates a gender change with a move from female potters to male potters.
One of the best documented potters who was involved in the introduction of wheels and kilns is the British potter, Michael Cardew in West Africa.7 He worked first in Ghana and later in Abuja, Nigeria between the 1940s and 1970s. Cardew's predecessor in Ghana was Harry Davis who had worked for Bernard Leach in the 1930s. Cardew, too had originally trained with Leach in the 1920s. Both Cardew and Davis were committed to finding local materials that would adapt to new kinds of pottery production appropriate for the changing needs of modern Africa. Both expressed great admiration for the local women potters - but their admiration was full of contradictions.
Writing of his experience in Ghana in 1940, in his unpublished autobiography (circa 1980) Harry Davis recalled:
However he went on to develop 'water bottles' which according to him were being imported from Europe - yet they sound like what the locals could have made by traditional techniques. He also produced roof tiles based on the French model and used widely in French colonies. He believed that they could not be handmade, which also seems unlikely.
After many initial setbacks Michael Cardew was able to set up the pottery at Abuja and train mainly young men in the new techniques. Interestingly he also trained a few women potters and one in particular, Ladi Kwali, became the most famous Nigerian potter associated with the Abuja Training Workshop. The women worked in the production pottery using wheels but also continued to employ their traditional hand-building technique to produce glazed stoneware pots decorated in the traditional African way. These hybrid wares have become among the most appreciated products of the Abuja Pottery.8 The pottery produced relatively expensive tableware and studio pottery mainly selling to expatriates and the Nigerian elite and, in the 1960s pottery from Abuja was also sold through exhibitions in Europe.
In a remarkably wide ranging discussion in an article published as long ago as 1971 Keith Nicklin an anthropologist who worked in Nigeria with Michael Cardew considered that 'the differences between hand-made and wheel techniques of pottery making are not so great.' (1971 pg. 48) Although he raised many important issues and recognised the role of women potters he did not really consider gender as significant factor. One of the problems seems to be that many writers and researchers claim to admire women's work but nobody really believes that they can learn anything from it. There is certainly an argument that Cardew did find a way of valuing and giving recognition to the local women's traditions, albeit as a sideline to the main production.
In the following section I want to compare two different case studies - one in the Gambia which I visited in 1992 and another, much more recently set up project in East Timor which I have not myself visited, but about which I have good information.
As in most of West Africa the traditional potters in the Gambia are women who work during the dry season between September and May. In the early 1990s I visited two main production centres. Feraba Banta, is a village situated within 20 miles of Serekunda, a major market town near Banjul, the capital, and the coastal strip, the focus of a booming tourist economy. The women hand-built their pottery from clay dug locally and could make between ten and fourteen 8-inch pots in a day (15 minutes for a small pot). They used cow dung, brushwood and palm fronds for their bonfires, usually firing 20-30 large water pots or 80 smaller ones. The women often worked in a group moving to each others houses, where the clay was supplied by the householder and the pots made in the one day belonged to that woman. They sold by the roadside and in Serekunda market where they might stay with relatives for up to a week while they sold their wares. Thus they had very low production costs in cash terms.
A slightly different model of production was an individual woman potter working in the village of Mandinari, situated on the banks of the Gambia River. Since the 1980s her work had been adapted to sell to tourists who were brought to her house when tour boats stopped at Mandinari to see a 'traditional village'. Her small pots sold to tourists at ten dalasi each (locals would have paid three dalasi). She could make 50 dalasi a day during the season.
By contrast another main production centre is Sotuma Sere which is situated six hours driving from Banjul, a long way up river and far from the tourist area at the coast. Sotuma Sere has a long-standing pottery production specialising in large red-slipped water jars and cooking pots with a bold white decoration. In the 1980s the potters had recognised that they should think about adapting their wares for new markets. They knew that their pots were heavy, easily broken in transport and increasingly threatened by the introduction of plastic buckets. Advisors from the Canadian University Service Overseas proposed that a pottery studio should be set up employing new technologies. Women would be paid a wage to work at the project. Ten years on, when I visited, it was clear that the project was foundering. The kilns were not working properly, the women were afraid of them and a young man was employed to undertake the firing. The pottery that was produced had all the appearance of 'evening class' throwing and had little distinction. It was intended for a tourist market but it did not have sufficient character to attract a tourist's eye. On the two occasions I visited there was nobody working at the pottery, while in the village I found a group of potters working together making large jars. The traditional pottery was laid out along the roadside and clearly still had a viable market. The kilns at the back of the workshop stood cold and unused and the wheels were still. It seemed that the women did not have much sympathy for the new technology.
I want to contrast this with a much more recent project in East Timor established by funding from World Vision International and USAID. I have not visited this myself but am working from information presented by the Australian potter, Sandy Lockwood in a talk about her work on this project given at the International Ceramic Festival in Aberystwyth in July 2003. Further information has been available from Simon Levin, an American potter who was involved in the kiln building. Both worked there between 2002 and 2003, although Sandy Lockwood was only there for four weeks in all, and sadly the lack of funding has meant that neither has been able to return since April 2003.
The project was established at Manatuto where the women were already well known for their pottery production; however they wanted to expand their market and create employment opportunities in the area. Currently unemployment is running at 75% and life expectancy is around 57 years. Coffee is the main cash crop and most of the people grow their own rice and vegetables. Aid funders were interested to develop a water-filter project as the quality of water in many parts of East Timor is poor and much time and fuel has to be expended in boiling water.
A disused factory across the paddy field on the edge of the village was the site for the pottery. The kiln design and building was led by Simon Levin and a group of local young men while Sandy worked with the women to develop the water filter containers. It is interesting that one of the problems with water boiling was shortage of fuel yet this kiln was wood fired. To their credit they experimented with buffalo dung which was used by the women in their traditional bonfired pottery, but the kiln quickly became blocked. They have also considered using rice husks, a potential waste material but it is apparently very heavy to transport. The filters themselves were being imported from Brazil at the relatively high cost of $5 each, and the next stage would be to try to develop filters that could be produced locally. Various pieces of equipment had been bought including a petrol generator to make electricity to work the pug mill which kneads the clay. This was a great success. A grinder to prepare the dry clay had not proved adequate, and an electric wheel had been welcomed enthusiastically by one of the best potters who had had some training in Indonesia but had turned out not really to be appropriate for making the filters. In this instance it seemed as if the wheel was a symbol of progress and modernity and was a useful morale booster but hardly really essential to the venture.
At first Sandy Lockwood had found the women potters a bit diffident about the outsiders but they also had little confidence in their own ideas or knowledge and looked very much to her to give a lead, while she was trying to get them to draw on their own knowledge and skills. Perhaps not surprisingly it was the younger women, some without previous pottery skills, who were more interested in the new work of water filters, while a number of the older women preferred to stay with their own traditional work.9 Even those who did work on the water filter project were also encouraged to make their traditional work at the workshop so that they could get some income from their work while the project was being developed. Traditional pots are burnished or polished, a characteristic finish of women's pottery in many parts of the world, but it is a very time consuming one. Sandy Lockwood was able to find a local shale which made a good red slip which could be painted on to give the filters a pleasant, but economical finish both in cost and in time.
One of the difficulties was that the kiln had been built by the men, not the potters and the women rarely went near it. Sandy recognised that she would have to find ways of giving them more ownership of this new piece of equipment. She devised an opening ceremony on the day that the arch at the top was added with singing and a celebration involving all the women. She also insisted that the women packed the kiln and found a group of young women to be the firing team. The first firing was relatively successful although it was clear some adjustments would be needed in the preparation of the materials as salt was leaching out. At the opening ceremony they showed their traditional work alongside the water filters and all the traditional pieces were sold to visiting people from the capital at Dilli.
By the summer of 2003 they had had a successful firing and a report from August in that year stated that the orders for water filters were coming in well. The project clearly has good potential but will easily founder without appropriate support. Neither she nor Simon Levin has been able to return to the project now for over a year. The funding is clearly not available. The traditional pottery continues to be made at home and the project at the old factory mainly involves water filters. Thus it appears that the two aspects of pottery work have split apart.
There is, however, a second part to this story. The East Timor project is also supported by the Australia National University who are working to develop a water filter using local materials so that it can be made in East Timor (Flynn 2003) and in 2004 researchers at ANU also began to experiment with dung firings.10 In the meantime a report from around December 2003 the women were persevering with firings but were having some difficulties with the kiln. As Flynn reported in his article of February 2004 'Unfortunately, the kiln they use is large and near impossible to maintain at an even temperature from top to bottom or front to back, even for an expert wood-firer' (p.3) however he also noted that their traditional firings produce 'a wide range of firing temperatures, and often ...inconsistent ceramics' (p.5). It is heartening to see that there appears to be some more attention being paid to the traditional methods which are, at very least, no worse than the new kiln technology.
So I hope I have been able to demonstrate that, in spite of a degree of lip service being paid to women's traditions of pot making, I do not believe that much attention has been paid either to the positive aspects of the technologies involved nor the wider implications of the gender issues of changing working practices such as fixed work hours or working away from the home. Traditional women potters have very little power or 'cultural capital' to influence change. For example, as far as I am aware no traditional potter has written a book about the technology of bonfiring and hand-building.11 By far the majority of advisors historically have been men usually coming out of a science or studio-pottery training. For this reason I was impressed by the more thoughtful and gender sensitive approach that Sandy Lockwood presented in her discussion of the project in East Timor and I am interested to see that the most recent developments are ones that give some value to the traditional firing systems.
Obviously so many projects falter through lack of sufficient long term support and an underestimation of the time it takes to develop new products and markets. However my principal argument is that the assumption that kilns and wheel throwing are going to improve things is so deeply ingrained in the thinking of many people involved in development that other avenues are insufficiently explored.12 /p>
I want to contrast this with three examples of developments where markets have been expanded by developing the technology in women's terms taking into account their knowledge, skills, working practices and social relations. There is not time here to dwell on these but just to offer them as exemplars.
The most successful development and revival of a women's ceramic tradition is Pueblo Pottery in New Mexico. This was not based on the introduction of new technology but rather on developing and refining existing skills and creating a buoyant tourist and collectors' market for the products.
The black pottery of La Chamba in Columbia has been developed from a traditional women's industry into work that employs many people in the area. The pottery is hand-built using moulds, burnished and finished with a smoke-firing to turn it to a lustrous black. It can be used for cooking over a gas flame and is dishwasher-proof. This highly versatile pottery has found a global market and is sold as oven-to-tableware in the UK, Europe and the USA.13
A more individual example is Nesta Nala in South Africa who heads a matriarchal household of about 40 people in rural KwaZulu Natal and can sell her special pieces for 50 times the price of the more rustic local pots. The Nala family have developed new versions of the traditional black beer pots, refining the techniques to create elegant jars sold through craft shops and galleries in South Africa.
There is an easy assumption that what people need is more up-to-date technology when design, marketing and business advice and support may be more appropriate. If the technology was considered from the bottom up, valuing existing knowledge and skills rather than from the top down where 'primitive' technology is easily dismissed, then there would be more successful pottery developments. The fact that so many traditional potters are women and so many advisors are men has further compounded these issues.
As I was concluding this article I noticed a short report about the work of Tony Flynn in East Timor (Salt 2004). It describes, as if this was a new discovery, successful experiments in firing ceramic water filters using dung, reporting temperatures of 1000 C. It entirely omitted reference to the fact that this is the traditional firing method used by the women in East Timor. The way this is reported confirms my argument that such techniques so easily go unnoticed or unacknowledged when practiced by traditional women potters rather than when 'discovered' by male scientists.
Special thanks to Sandy Lockwood whose talk is recorded in the Ceramic Archive, UW Aberystwyth and Simon Levin for information on East Timor and to Eileen Bissel for additional information on pottery in the Gambia.
Bunzel, Ruth. The Pueblo Potter: A Story of Creative Imagination in Primitive Art (1929), New York, Dover, 1972.
Davis, Harry. Autobiography typescript in the Ceramic Archive, UW Aberystwyth (circa 1980).
Duncan, Ronald. Crafts Capitalism and Women, the Potters of La Chamba, Colombia, Gainsville, University Press of Florida, 2000.
Flynn, Tony 'Of Clay and Clean Water', Materials Monthly , April 2003
Foster, George. 'The Coyotepec Molde and some Associated Problems of the Potter's Wheel' Southwest Journal of Anthropology 1959,15, pp.53-63.
Gosselain, Olivier. 'Bonfire of the Enquiries. Pottery Firing Temperatures in Archaeology: What For?' Journal of Archaeological Science , 1992,19, pp.243-259.
Hamer, Frank & Janet. The Potter's Dictionary of Materials and Techniques , London, A&C Black, 1991.
Interpreting Ceramics , Issue 3, Papers from the Michael Cardew Symposium, 2001, Electronic Journa, www.interpretingceramics.com.
Kingery, W. David. 'Operation Principles of Ceramic Kilns' in The Prehistory and History of Ceramic Kilns, Prudence Rice and W.D. Kingery (eds) Ceramics and Civilization Series, Vol 7, 1997.
Leach, Bernard. A Potter's Book , London, Faber & Faber, (1940)1976.
Mattison, Stephen. The Complete Potter , Hove, Apple, 2003.
Nicklin, Keith. 'Stability and Innovation in Pottery Manufacture', World Archaeology , 3, pp.13-48, 94-9.8
Peterson, Susan. Pottery by American Indian Women, The Legacy of Generations , National Museum of Women in the Arts, New York, Abbeville Press, 1997.
Shepard, Anna. Ceramics for the Archaeologist, Carnegie Institute of Washington, 1956.
Vincentelli, Moira. Women and Ceramics: Gendered Vessels , Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2000.
Vincentelli, Moira. Women Potters, Transforming Traditions , London, A&C Black, 2003.
Websites relating to the East Timor project
Field Report: East Timor, September 2002
http://www.usaid.gov/hum_response/oti/country/timor/rpt0902.html (consulted October 10th 2004)
The East Timor project organised by Sandra Lockwood and Simon Levin
http://www.sidestoke.com/EastTimor/ (consulted October 29 th 2004)
David Salt 'Firing up on Dung', Science Wise @ the Australian National University, September 2004
http://nib.rsbs.anu.edu.au/NIB/pdf/ScienceWise_Sep04.pdf (consulted October 22nd 2004)
Tony Flynn 'Dung Story' Materials Monthly , July 2004, p.4
Tony Flynn 'many challenges in developing low-tech clay water filters' Materials Monthly , February 2004 pp. 3,5
Tony Flynn 'Of Clay and Clean Water' Materials Monthly , April 2003 pp. 1-2
http://www.anu.edu.au/CSEM/newsletters (consulted October 31st 2004)
1 See for example Vincentelli 2000 where the theme is discussed generally or Vincentelli 2003 where gender issues are considered in relation to women's hand-building traditions.
2 From an early influential analysis such as Ruth Bunzel The Pueblo Potter: A Story of Creative Imagination in Primitive Art (1929) to many books published in the late 20 th century most notably by Susan Peterson.
3 The evaporation on the side of a slightly porous pot keeps the water cool.
4 In his unpublished autobiography Harry Davis records Moroccan kilns which used palm fronds in the firing (Davis mss p.55) and Michael O'Brien, the British potter who took over at Abuja after Michael Cardew, considered the possibility of using rice husks in kiln firings in Nigeria, but in the event did not develop the project.
5 The combination of fly ash on the surface of the pottery creates these effects.
6 Foster argued that the mushroom mould system used in central Mexico is 'as rapid as all but the best wheel-throwing potters' (Foster 1959 pp.113-4)
7 For a recent discussion with further bibliographic references see Interpreting Ceramics 3, Papers arising from the Michael Cardew Symposium, Aberystwyth 2001.
8 The pottery was renamed the Ladi Kwali Pottery in the 1980s.
9 In new developments it is sometimes easier to attract men to train as they have no previous pottery experience and do not have 'un-learn' existing hand movements and skills. The technological aspects of wheels and kilns are immediately identifiable as different from that used by women thus making what might appear to be a female activity acceptable to young men.
10 For information on this see Tony Flynn 'Of Clay and Clean Water' Materials Monthly , April 2003 pp. 1-2 ; 'Many Challenges in developing low-tech clay water filters' February 2004 pp. 3,5; 'Dung Story', July 2004 p.4.
11 Rena Swenzell is an example of a person from a Pueblo potting family who lectures and writes about the history of ceramics drawing on her 'insider' knowledge of Pueblo traditions.
12 Potters for Peace (USA/Guatemala) have developed a water filter design that can either be handbuilt or thrown.
13 See Duncan 2000 for a hard hitting assessment of the developments in La Chamba questioning the extent to which the women potters have control of their wor k.
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