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Exhibition Review by Louise Chennell & Kathy Talbot

‘Sankofa: Ceramic Tales from Africa’ The Ceramic Gallery, Aberystwyth Arts Centre


Sankofa: Ceramic Tales from Africa, as it was displayed in Aberystwyth , showed much more than many different types of pottery from the African continent. It contextualised the work suggesting some of the ways that traditional designs and motifs are adapted into contemporary culture. Furthermore it raised issues relating to Western attitudes to utility and recycling.

‘Sankofa’ is a word from the Twi language used by the Akan people of West Africa. Literally translated it means ‘it is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot’1, and the concept of ‘learning from the past to move forward to the future’ is at the core of this exhibition. The concept is symbolised in West Africa in the form of a stylised bird, arching its neck backwards over its body and holding an egg in its beak. (Fig.1)


This exhibition focuses on contemporary ceramics in parts of Morocco, Tunisia, Ghana, and South Africa, and explores how African potters adapt traditional forms to produce pottery for contemporary societies. The exhibition was originated as a collaboration between Manchester Museum and Moira Vincentelli (Senior Lecturer Art History, Curator of Ceramics, Aberystwyth University) who has written extensively on ceramics and especially about gendered production2. The research was based on field trips in Africa between 2005 and 2006 undertaken by Vincentelli, and took as its starting point African pottery in the Manchester Museum, which was collected over one hundred years ago. But this is not an exhibition of objects from the colonial collections found in the dusty archives. Vincentelli visited modern makers and busy local markets in her search for pots. The result is a rich variety of traditional shapes anchored in the past but adapted to twenty-first century needs. Makers include country potters and those at the forefront of African art and exhibiting internationally. (Fig. 2)

The nature of the research is immediately clear throughout the exhibition and is brought to life through the hand written interview notes, well thumbed travel guides, taxi receipts, and personal photographs which are placed amongst the exhibits. The joys and vagaries of research in the field are evident. This emphasises the fact that potteries were visited and the potters themselves were spoken to, rather than the pots being purchased anonymously from shops or galleries. The exhibition is accompanied by a touch screen display, indexing the pots, but also having short videos of Vincentelli and of Helga Gamboa, a maker originally from Angola, talking about the work. To depart from the traditional gallery display, some pots are placed on rough wooden platforms, painted in primary colours. In African markets the wooden pallets are unpainted, but here the bright colours evoke the strong colours of African decoration. There is also an emphasis on the ongoing production and use of other traditional crafts in Africa, where comparative examples such as wax-resist printed cotton, basketry and wood carving are placed amongst the pottery. (Fig.3)


This exhibition can only demonstrate a fraction of contemporary African ceramics; however Vincentelli's work illustrates the diversity in style, technique and use across the areas that were visited. There are new shapes and designs that are produced for new ways of cooking, the ever-changing tourist market and the erratic art market. Painting pots with household gloss paint or syringing henna on to plates may make some ethical potters recoil in horror, however these are the results of potters responding to demands in the market (which includes tourists, as well as the local population) and using available resources. This is set in context when exhibited with other local craftwork, where utility and adaptability remain the watchwords. Redundant tin cans are worked into oil lamps; wood is carved in the shape of beer bottles, to be used as funerary items. A large pot sits on a cube of crushed cans from an Aberystwyth recycling plant, highlighting our Western consumerism and waste. Scrap aluminium in Africa is often melted down and made into cooking utensils such as soup ladles, spoons and colanders. The popularity of the terracotta grater in Ghana has spawned a recycled metal version and a more commercial version with added beads.

In North Africa, Berber pottery made by women is traditionally hand built and fired in an open fire, while men throw pottery on a wheel and use kilns. Gender divisions in ceramic technology persist into the twenty-first century. The pottery produced by women is decorated with designs that relate to the identity of their people, who live all across North Africa. These monochrome, linear, abstract designs are found in house decoration and textiles, as well as pottery, which include functional domestic ware as well as decorative animal figures. One female potter, Fatima Eirifi from Morocco, illustrates her inventiveness and the usability of fired clay by making a ceramic form to adapt a bottled gas canister for cooking. She decorates this with the same identifiable black lines, only this time they represent where the metal components would be in its factory-produced attachment. This is illustrated in context, with teapot, clay adaptor and gas bottle in situ. (Fig.4)

Meanwhile the Moroccan tagine, or cooking pot, has become a popular item in the European household. However few people use it for cooking, and instead it is purchased as a decorative ornament. The shape of a tagine, a conical lid placed over a shallow dish, was initially developed for slow cooking of spicy meat based stews. Moroccan potters have exploited its popularity by adapting the tagine shape for other tableware such as condiment sets and serving dishes, a variety of these are displayed. Morocco has a thriving ceramics industry, with small-scale workshops operating on the outskirts of the towns, with established potters' quarters existing in Fez, Marrakesh, Meknes and Sale. Traditional ceramics include making tiles for mosaic work as well as tin glazed earthenware, but new ways of decoration are introduced. In Morocco, Boutounes Touria of Safi syringes henna decoration as used on women's hands and feet, and applies it to fired pottery. (Fig.5)

Much African pottery is produced for the active home domestic market. Clay vessels for cooking and carrying water have to compete with metal and plastic versions. In the exhibition these are placed side by side, where a plastic bowl with its sky blue and white-feathered decoration, can justify itself not only in terms of functionality, but also in terms of aesthetics for the consumer and the decorative possibilities in recycling. In the face of this competition new markets for pottery have to be explored.

The women potters at Fesi Pottery, Kpandu Ghana are traditionally known for their black pottery, especially modelled animals which have been made since the 1900s. Ghana has a strong cultural tradition of symbolism and each animal has a particular significance. Smaller versions are now popular for the tourist market. (Fig.6)

With help and training from Aid to Artisans Ghana, the women have developed stronger clay to work with. However, they shun their recently installed kiln because it cannot blacken the pottery in the way that traditional bonfiring can. While the benefits of imported Western technologies can make the work less arduous, there is sometimes a failure to recognise the aesthetic needs, demands and practicalities which are found in the traditional indigenous practices. However, this is not to say that makers are unwilling to introduce new methods when appropriate. In urban potteries in Ghana however, bright colours on decorative ware can be achieved by using standard household paint rather than the expense of a secondary glaze firing. There is no pretence involved; photographs taken by Vincentelli during her tours and included in the exhibition show the paint cans visible in the pottery show rooms. (Fig.7)


Meanwhile in South Africa, the Venda potters who used commercial gloss paint in the mid twentieth century are returning to more natural looking decoration. As a country emerging from the legacy of Apartheid, older traditions of making are maintained as a matter of cultural identity. Examples of carving, traditionally the work of men, and pottery, the work of women, are displayed. In Venda, large vessels in the shape of a female figure are popular, and as in Western depictions of women as water carriers, they are usually nude. However, Fadorah Sello Ramdoko's clothed female torso stands boldly upright in both stature and character. (Fig.8)

In contrast to the makers for the every day local market, a new generation of potters are making solely for the art market. The ukhamba -a smoke-black, thin-walled, round bottomed beer pot is still used in ceremonies by the Zulu-speaking people of South Africa. Thembi and Jabu Nala, the daughters of Nesta Nala (1940-2005), follow in their mother's footsteps by developing their pots for the urban craft gallery and collector market. (Fig.9)

Nesta Nala was influenced by ancient forms and decoration which she discovered when archaeologists worked near her home. The Nala family, are matriarchal, with skills passed on from mother to daughter and pottery for Nesta Nala was also a means of financial independence and she never married. Her influence has spread outside her family members to international students of ceramics. Thembi and Jabu Nala's designs are more contemporary. While Jabu makes large sized, decorative vessels, Thembi applies illustrations to her pots with narratives about daily Zulu life, which includes the reality of HIV-AIDS. Craftwork depicting AIDS is sought after by collectors and tourists, and the piece in this exhibition by Thembi Nala was specially commissioned. It shows a woman laid out, with a serpent, Thembi's symbolic representation of AIDS, ready to take her life. There is also a man, digging the grave, and the children left behind after her death. (Fig.10)


Angolan born Helga Gamboa on the other hand, never saw traditional African pottery until she studied ceramics in Britain. Brought up in a Portuguese colonial regime, she had only experienced European ceramics. In keeping with the theme of ‘Sankofa’, ‘learning from the past to move forward to the future’, Gamboa's pots are handbuilt burnished forms sometimes in an African gourd shape and are decorated with tin-glaze, the Portuguese, colonising country's tradition, but incorporating images of the modern tragedy of land mine victims. Like Thembi Nala, she highlights political and social problems of her birth country by providing a narrative on her pots, with written texts and transfer-printed images referring to the casualties of war and the unresolved consequences of Angola's thirty years of civil war. On the touch screen Gamboa can be seen and heard discussing her work. Helga Gamboa lives and makes in Bristol and is a PhD student at the School of Art, University of Wales Aberystwyth. (Fig.11)


If in the European tradition we use objects from our history to create and locate our identity, African potters are not allowing their wares to become objects of history but continually reinvent them in a contemporary context, for the domestic, art and tourist markets. Traditional methods of handbuilding, open firing and burnishing, traditional shapes and uses, remain at the core of their work. These are researched and learned by today's ceramic students, whether taught by family members or by tutors in universities, who adapt them to tell their own stories. Vincentelli's previous work in the area of female ceramicists and her experience in visiting Africa has made this exhibition particularly alive to the condition of ceramics in Africa. Indeed, the title of the exhibition is entirely apt: ‘Sankofa’, learning from the past to move forward to the future.


  1. http://www.duboislc.net/SankofaMeaning.html back to text
  2. See Moira Vincentelli, Women and Ceramics, Gendered Vessels, Manchester University Press, 1999 and Women Potters, Transforming Traditions , London, A&C Black, 2003. back to text

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

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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 Louise Chennell & Kathy Talbot • Issue 10