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'Sankofa: Ceramic Tales from Africa' Manchester Museum – Exhibition review

Exhibition Review by Angharad Thomas


The Sankofa: Ceramic Tales from Africa, exhibition was at the Manchester Museum during April - June 2006. Most of the pieces in it were bought in Africa in 2005 and 2006 by Moira Vincentelli. The exhibition explores the idea of the continuing tradition of pottery production in Africa as well as documenting contemporary production - the people and the methods they use. The work on display is from Morocco and Tunisia in North Africa, Ghana, West Africa, and South Africa. There is also a small amount of work from contemporary ceramicists and some from the collections of the Manchester Museum and Aberystwyth University.


The room in which the exhibition was housed is not a large space. The pottery, nearly 150 pieces in total, was displayed in and on a variety of cabinets and tables and is grouped according to its geographic origin. Several large photographic panels showing the makers give a flavour of the conditions in which it has been produced as well as groups of smaller ‘snaps’ that show makers and workshops, shops and stalls. The intention of the display, stated in an introductory text panel, was to give a flavour of the markets and roadside stalls from where much of this pottery came and to this end some of it is displayed on metal shelving. Some is in conventional museum style display cases and some on, or in, domestic furniture - tables, a dresser and a china cabinet. So far, so good. The idea of this variety of display is fine and adds life to the work, but why then is it all encased in or behind Perspex? No doubt there are issues of security to be addressed but this did seem to be a heavy handed way of dealing with it especially given that many of the pieces are not, in themselves, particularly valuable in monetary terms.

The work itself is of course varied; a great deal of it is ‘everyday’ and made by unnamed people for daily use. There are examples of work by named makers including the pieces made by Helga Gamboa, an Angolan woman currently living in the UK, that explore and examine images of colonialism and family history through a mixture of traditional pottery and transfers. A lot of the work shows high levels of skill in building and making as well as in decorating and burnishing. The DVD though, shows that there is work on a much larger scale than that in this exhibition. Even allowing for (assumed) small budgets for travel and shipping, it seems a shame that there was no examples of the large pots that are being made in Africa now - the sort that is almost as tall as its maker. The other attractive feature of production pottery that was lost in the exhibition is that of repetition - the pots stacked in the workshop while being made, and then in the shops and stalls where it is sold. The exhibition did was not intend to reproduce these exactly, but a hint of them would have added to the visual language of it.

The intended audience for Sankofa is not clear - although it could appeal to a variety of group: school children, makers - amateur and professional, academics and researchers from various disciplines. There is not a paper based catalogue but each group of pots has a hand list on the wall nearby. This system works well as there is plenty of information here about the exhibits. There is also a table in the room that has relevant books for reference and browsing and that is an attractive feature.

The DVD contains a huge amount of information, although as with so many electronic resources, one is never quite sure exactly how much. The series of visuals that runs automatically takes about 15 minutes to watch and must contain a hundred images, sadly not captioned. The ‘talking head’ interviews are interesting too and I think these were on the screen in the exhibition, but that was not working when I was there. Having both the time and suitable space to watch videos while actually in exhibitions can be difficult anyway; they are probably best watched away from it. Having spent time with the DVD, the ideas and issues that the exhibition explores are more obvious. It is a pity that there was no way of doing this within the exhibition itself. Might the display have been themed around these rather than by geographical region? Might there have been another way of including at least some of the material on the DVD in the exhibition so that it could have been available at the time - projected images or a reference copy of the catalogue text possibly? The catalogue on the DVD is excellent with an illustration of every piece, a very full description and pictures of the maker and workshop in many cases. The navigation of the DVD is awkward and can be frustrating, but this is a common problem with multi media information and is outweighed by the material on it. The quality of the images, especially the text, on the DVD was poor, certainly on my laptop - even so, still a very useful resource.

Bringing together the exhibition itself and the material on the DVD, it is clear that there are many ceramic tales from Africa. Where the pottery comes from, how it is made, what is means to its makers in terms of providing a livelihood, the pieces as personal explorations, the continuing of tradition; all these are fascinating for anyone with an interest in ceramics, craft, design, economic development, heritage, tourism, cultural history, anthropology and possibly other areas too. In the exhibition itself, these tales are not obvious. Sankofa does tell ‘ceramic tales from Africa’ - it is just not done very clearly or directly.

End note

As with all self respecting exhibitions now, there was ‘African’ music playing from a locked cupboard. It’s a personal and probably unfashionable view but I could do without this - I like to be able to think when I’m looking at things, and music, not of my choice, does not aid this process. (this remark would apply to most place I go now, shops, the swimming pool, railway stations... )


Gender and Ceramics: Old Forms and New Markets

by Moira Vincentelli

Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) & Zulu Ceramic Arts: Azolina MaMncube Ngema, One Woman’s Story

by Elizabeth Perrill

Barvas Ware: Women Potters of Barvas, Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides.

by Kate Wilson

The Pottery of Northern Ghana

by Anna Craven

The Role and Status of Women in the Pottery-Making Traditions of the Western Balkans

by Richard Carlton

Coalpot and Canawi: Traditional Creole Pottery in the Contemporary Commonwealth Caribbean

by Patricia Fay

An Angolan Heritage: The Ceramics of Helga Gamboa

by Helga Gamboa

Dialogues with Tradition in the Ceramics of Eytan Gross

by Nurith Kenaan-Kedar

Sankofa exhibition at Manchester, review

by Angharad Thomas

Sankofa exhibition at Aberystwyth, review

by Kathy Talbot and Louise Chennell

Searching For Beauty, Richard Jacobs, book review

by Conor Wilson

Review of the event 'Richard Jacobs and Jeffrey Jones in conversation in Cardiff

by Natasha Mayo

Breaking the Mould, book review

by Alison Britton

Kiln Building, Jo Finch, book review

by Tom Barnett


© The copyright of the images in this article M. Vincentelli.

Exhibition Review by Angharad Thomas • Issue 10