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Gender and Ceramics: Old Forms and New Markets

Moira Vincentelli, Senior Lecturer in Art History and Curator of Ceramics, Aberystwyth University



This essay is an editorial introduction to a group of articles that examine issues of gender and world ceramics. It explores how women potters whose work stems from indigenous practices respond to new markets and opportunities and how their work is perceived in the context of the contemporary art and craft market. The discussion also draws into consideration some makers who were demonstrators at the International Ceramics Festival in Aberystwyth in 2007, an event which preceded the symposium ‘Traditional Women Potters: Old Forms and New Markets’ where most of the papers were first presented.

Key words: world ceramics; women potters; indigenous pottery

Setting the Scene

All too often it is assumed that traditional ceramics just disappear when their functions are superseded with the introduction of running water, electricity and mass produced metal, plastic and china. After years of research in the field I am convinced that the story is much more complicated, and this conviction was confirmed by the papers presented at the ‘Traditional Women Potters: Old Forms and New Markets’ symposium. This event followed the weekend of the International Ceramics Festival in Aberystwyth where in 2007 there was strong representation of makers whose work related to indigenous traditions including Genya Sonobe from Japan who demonstrated raku-fired tea bowls, Muthukaruppan Palaniappan, a traditional horse builder from Southern India, Angelica Vazquez from Mexico and the Berber potter, Sabiha Ayari, from Tunisia. Jane Perryman gave lectures on aspects of traditional pottery in India at the Festival and afterwards at the symposium and John Agberia from the University of Port Harcourt discussed the Nigerian potter, Ladi Kwali who worked with Michael Cardew.1 Celebrated with honours and, at times, the financial mainstay of the Abuja Pottery (now known as Ladi Kwali Pottery) her work represents a fascinating hybrid of African form and European studio pottery in stoneware. (Fig 1).

All of these things are located in my interest in gender and ceramics and my efforts to present contemporary Western ceramics alongside work from the developing world, attempting to bring together issues and commonalities from across continents which I believe are often ignored.2 In a study trip to Lombok in Indonesia earlier this year I was impressed by the range and quality of the work which has to be sold at a very low price in order to compete in the global marketplace. As an academic and curator of contemporary ceramics in the UK I want to understand better the process whereby so much of the work that interests me is excluded from the canon. As Shelley Errington has observed in her essay ‘The Death of Authentic Primitive Art’:

Many objects will be called to the market, but few will be chosen as the highest ... others will be ranged around them in tiers of value that replicate eighteenth century distinctions between high and low art, hard and soft, ritual and useful, anthropomorphic and decorative.3

But what is the substantive difference between indigenous ceramics, folk art and fine craft? In his essay ‘On Collecting Art and Culture’ James Clifford offers a grid representing the art-culture system with two axes from authentic to inauthentic and from artefact to masterpiece. ‘Art’, he proposes, is viewed independent of context while folk art or craft is made meaningful by its historical or ethnographic context. Curios and tourist art are on the artefact side and slip down into the inauthentic and ‘non-art’ quartile. Thus, where things are seen and how things are seen is central to their assigned cultural value.4

Scholarship in ceramics is clustered around distinct bodies of knowledge, such as archaeology, ethno-archaeology, folk life, and ‘collectibles’ from Sèvres porcelain to studio pottery through to contemporary art. All are lodged in discourses that shape the reading of the work setting up hidden barriers between related objects. Much of the ceramic work discussed in these papers sits in the insecure liminal space between categories.

Of the articles presented here, some are the fruit of longitudinal research that has been carried out over several decades observing change and developments: Richard Carlton in the Balkans, Patricia Fay in the Commonwealth Caribbean and Anna Craven whose study of pottery in Northern Ghana is based on two periods of fieldwork in 1964 and again in 2007. Elizabeth Perrill’s discussion of the Zulu potter Azolina MaMncube focuses on how MaMncube balances competing markets and tastes in the context of contemporary South Africa. Most of the articles discuss ceramics made by women although in some cases relationships between gender and technology are considered as with the use of the hand-wheel in the Western Balkans or the handbuilding and wheel-throwing traditions in the Caribbean. Nurith Kenaan-Kedar (Israel) and Helga Gamboa (UK/Angola) write about work that self consciously references indigenous traditions but creates ceramic artworks that are the product of a personal expression. Apart from Kate Wilson’s study of the intriguing Scottish phenomenon of Barvas ware which died out in the 1930s, all the articles deal with contemporary work and all, at one level or another, give consideration to the processes of change and innovation.

The investigation of Barvas ware is an interesting case study of a short-lived phenomenon that flourished briefly based on an older tradition of ‘craggan’ pottery. It existed in the brief space of time when transport links were improved but not so easy as to completely break down the isolation of the island of Lewis in the Hebrides; a point where the potters were exposed to the new practice of tea drinking and at a time when the ‘primitive’ became collectable.

The word ‘tradition’ is much bandied about in relation to ceramics. The studio potter, that new breed of middle class maker who emerged in the first decades of the twentieth century, liked to identify with the practices and technologies that were fast disappearing in country potteries in Europe, North America and Japan. However there are still large numbers of potters and ceramic artists whose work stems more directly from an indigenous tradition. Such makers have not trained in college or university and have limited access to contemporary issues and debates in the art world. Nevertheless they too are contemporary makers who adapt their ceramics to evolving circumstances and fresh opportunities. There is nothing new in this, it is what potters have always done, but in the modern world the process tends to be faster. Factors that effect change include colonial domination and postcolonial independence, improved transport and communication, tourism, global trade, development projects, expanding middle-class markets and the use of ceramics in domestic display in home or garden to signify social standing and taste.

Some literature

Ever since Graburn published his text Ethnic and Tourist Arts in 19765 there has been a growing body of literature that has addressed these issues usually with selected essays relating to ceramics and sometimes touching on gender. Ruth Phillips and Christopher Steiner’s compilation of essays Unpacking Culture, Art and Commodity in Colonial and Postcolonial Worlds (1999) has been an important marker in the field and more recently Crafting Gender, Women and Folk Art in Latin America and the Caribbean (2003) takes up the discussion with four out of ten of the essays dealing with ceramics. Henry Glassie’s The Potter’s Art (1999) belies its rather bland title with its sensitive engagement with individual makers from many different parts of the world giving value to their art and skills. The extensive range of publications on the history of Native American and Pueblo pottery including books, exhibition catalogues and monographs on individuals is unmatched in relation to any other woman’s tradition.6

In a different way the ceramic artist and writer Jane Perryman has also contributed to this debate. As one of the pioneers of smoke firing she first published her influential book on the subject in 1995 and has recently re-written and brought it up to date (2008). It was interesting to see her book being used in a development training workshop in Lombok. The text is about contemporary work by Western artists but the starting point is a chapter on traditional firing – but perhaps that division is already telling in itself. There is really no cross-over between the two categories.7


Personal expression and the one-off art work is often seen as a defining characteristic of fine art practice, however it is also a characteristic of some makers whose work springs from indigenous ceramic practices. Angelica Vazquez sat before the audience in Aberystwyth modelling intricate sculptures and relating tales of saints and devils, of madonnas, miracles and mythical beasts. Drawing on a heritage of popular folk culture her work is part of a mid-twentieth century development at Santa Maria Atzompa a village a few miles outside the beautiful city of Oaxaca and at the foot of the ancient Zapotec archaeological site of Monte Alban. For centuries in Atzompa the local economy was based on agriculture and functional pottery, mainly produced by women for the local market but in the 1950s Teodoro Blanco began to model figures which found a ready market locally but more importantly in North America where her work became highly collectable, most famously by Nelson Rockefeller.8 Atzompa now prospers with a thriving tourist industry and export market producing a wide range of decorative pottery and figurative ceramics. Angelica Vazquez is one of the leading figures among a number of women who have gained international reputations in recent years especially in the USA through promotion by dealers, galleries, demonstrations. (Fig 2).

Figurative and animal forms are a common response when new marketing opportunities become available. Cochiti potters of New Mexico potters were quick to seize the opportunity when the railroad was opened up and bus tours organised after 1880. Their figures represent a sardonic take on the new people and experiences that were increasingly part of their world.

The dominant pottery production in North Africa is a male tradition based on wheels, kilns and tin-glaze decoration. Berber potters, by contrast, are female using handbuilding, open-firing and a distinctive form of linear ornament. Berber women in North Africa have been producing animal forms for over a century possibly responding to colonial taste for ornament in domestic decoration. Elaborate painted decoration and displays of colourful pottery were a characteristic of some domestic interiors in Sejnane. (Fig 3). In comparison with functional pottery, figurative work is quite rare in museum collections as it was probably considered ‘inauthentic’. Around Sejnene in Tunisia where Sabiha Ayari lives there is still a local market for couscous steamers, serving bowls and plates but figurative and animal forms are now produced in a range of sizes mainly to suit an outsider or tourist market. Many of these are sold at roadside stalls by women and girls dressed in colourful Berber costumes. As a leading exponent of figurative work, Sabiha Ayari has won many awards in Tunisia and her animal figures, in particular, have a lively character that single her out from other exponents. (Fig 4).


The lines between different types of ceramic work are often too simplistically drawn. The emphasis on innovation and originality in Western culture tends to negate these qualities in makers from indigenous traditions whose work is stereotyped as static and unchanging. Even worse, when it does change, it can then be condemned for being inauthentic. In her article Elizabeth Perrill examines the use and meanings of the ukhamba or beer pot in contemporary KwaZulu Natal, a ceramic object that is embedded in customary practices associated with significant social occasions. But the markets are multiplying. It may be a blackened form for sale in a local market; it may be a colourful gloss-painted version catering for a local person with a taste for something novel or it may be a much refined, thin-walled version with a high polish for sale in a Durban art gallery and intended for display in an urban interior. Perrill is able to demonstrate how MaMnCube is aware of different consumer preferences for her (modern) painted or (traditional) burnished wares.

The use of commercial paints is a particular example. Significantly both Angelica Vazquez and Sabiha Ayari produce work that is innovative however I noted that both stressed in their presentations at the International Ceramics Festival that they used ‘natural’ materials, thereby establishing their credentials in tradition and distinguishing themselves from fellow potters who use ‘commercial’ colours and paints. They are sufficiently aware of the dominant discourse.

Survivals and revivals

There are still many parts of the world where pottery is used for storing water in the domestic environment. In potters’ households in Lombok, Indonesia such pots can still be seen in the courtyards even sometimes when piped water is available. The system had been adapted as an ‘ethnic’ detail for the outdoor shower by the pool at the hotel where I stayed in 2008. (Fig. 5 and Fig.6). Terracotta cook stoves are also still used but pottery cooking utensils have largely given way to metal which heats up more quickly and is less breakable. (Fig. 7).

In most parts of the world plastic containers are widely preferred for carrying water as they are so much lighter but there is often still a place for a particular form or utensil that holds its place in the hearts of local consumers. Sometimes the form becomes symbolic, a signifier of culture and identity. The Moroccan tagine with its distinctive conical lid is one such ceramic icon. However such is the nature of global exchange, that Indonesian potters in Lombok are currently producing tagines destined for the North American market. One suspects that the purchaser is consuming the ‘ethnic’ look as opposed to the Moroccan cooking dish. (Fig. 8).

In southern Ghana the grater plate is an important item, used for grating vegetables or for eating fufu, the sticky staple eaten with soup. (Fig. 9 and Fig.10). The grater pot is also occasionally made in cast metal While it is still a humble item turned out in large quantities for the local market, as the last ‘traditional’ pottery form still widely in use it is easily possible that it could transform itself into a significant marker of identity. Indeed at Fesi Pottery in Kpandu where they make more decorative forms I saw a particularly elegant version in production. (Fig.11).

Craft skills and the body

One of the fascinating aspects of craft skills is the way they shape the body creating movements and gestures that are learned often from an early age in the case of traditional potters. At Vume in Ghana when Giuliana Pomeyie offered to demonstrate her method of making a pot her young daughter immediately took up a place beside her showing how she too could do it. (Fig.12). Thus, Patricia Fay can argue that over many generations of women potters in the Caribbean they still demonstrate evidence of roots in West Africa by subtle aspects of their body movements and even a particular sound made by sucking the teeth. In societies where women have been the potters, the particular way they sit or bend over to make pottery may have strong gender connotations making it unusual for men to take over the task even if they wished to. In Lombok where the economic benefits have encouraged men to become more involved in pottery production in recent years, it can be quite striking how men and women use their body in different ways even to undertake the same task. (Fig.13 and Fig.14).


As I have discussed elsewhere in this journal9 it is rare for traditional women potters to throw pots on the wheel and when such technology has been introduced it has not always been successful. However women do seem to use the low wheel or hand wheel much more widely, as discussed by Richard Carlton. Handbuilding techniques are varied but usually involve remarkably speedy systems of pulling up the form usually by adding thick coils of soft clay. As most of this type of pottery is once fired the outer surface is frequently finished off with burnishing, a technique found widely in Asia, Africa and the Americas and even in Europe. Smoke firing the pieces by plunging the hot wares from the open fire into sawdust or damp vegetable matter is again ubiquitous. It is generally a technique that is harder to achieve when using a kiln. (Fig.15).

The use of coloured slip decoration with blocks of parallel lines applied with long fine liner brushes, usually home made, is also surprisingly similar across continents and in places where there is little possibility of a connection. Compare a Berber pot from Kabylie with the decoration used by Amazonian potters in Ecuador. Similar decorative techniques can also be found in ancient Mediterranean pottery and even ancient Chinese wares. There are possibilities that there are ancient legacies but it is clear that similar solutions may have been found. (Fig.16 and Fig.17).

Another common finish is the dousing of wares with some type of decoction from boiled vegetable matter. In Lombok a much valued finish is known as ‘tamarind’. The hot pots are removed from the fire and sprayed with a fine mist of tamarind water to give a rich brown speckled surface. Nowadays this is applied using a piece of agricultural equipment with the canister strapped to the sprayer’s back. The operation of this small piece of ‘high tech’ equipment appears to have become the speciality of young men in potting communities who seem to have been allocated this as an appropriate male task where it is ‘all hands on deck’ to fulfil the orders in good time. (Fig.18).


One of the issues raised at the symposium, following Perrill’s discussion of the difficulties of Azolina MaMncube, was the position of women who gain a personal reputation for their work beyond that of the other potters in the village. They may become wealthier or find opportunities to travel, act as demonstrators or be involved in training workshops and events that expand their knowledge and skills. The process is one that is likely to disturb the older equilibrium in a community. It may bring increased prosperity but it also ushers in new tensions and potential jealousies that have to be negotiated. Women become less dependent on men. In his essay on the potters of La Chamba in Colombia, Ronald Duncan noted that a very high percent of the households were female-headed households (30% as opposed to 5% in other places)10 . In many of the places I have visited I have been interested to find how exceptional women potters appear to have chosen to remain independent: examples include Nesta Nala and Noria Mabasa in South Africa, Sabiha Ayari in Tunisia, and women of the Mateos family, San Marcos in Mexico. In the development of such pottery one way forward is the promotion of individuality applying the Western model of artistry and this appears to take place particularly where there is a close interface with Western culture as can be found among indigenous potters of Mexcio and North America or in South Africa. During my visit to Lombok in 2008 the process was rather different and certainly the Lombok Pottery Centre, specifically set up to support women potters, does not market wares by individual name and has chosen to follow a more mass-production model. That said, the managers are well aware of the particularly talented workers to whom they take special commissions.

Ceramic Identities

In a world where a hotel room in Tokyo may look little different from one in Tangiers and where intercontinental travel and international marketing break down cultural difference there is a counterbalancing effect where marks of identity re-emerge. In the postmodern world there is a generation of artists who have found the need to emphasise identity making reference to older forms but in a sophisticated even ironic language. This can be seen in the work of an artist such as Diego Romero.

Although similar to some of the new Native Americans, the work of Magadalene Odundo does not flow directly from her Kenyan upbringing or family inheritance but she has always drawn on indigenous ceramic traditions among her range of references and borrowings. She has by far the highest profile of any African ceramist and is frequently included in shows of contemporary African art in spite of the fact that she trained in ceramics in the UK and has lived in Britain since the 1970s.11 In the elegant monograph on her work published in 2004 Emmanuel Cooper discusses the difficulty posed for museum curators who collected her work in the context of the apparent timeless anonymity of an African ethnographic collection.12 He writes ‘Whilst acknowledging her Kenyan and African heritage, Odundo resists having her work put into any narrow category, whether as an expression of feminist ideas or for its African qualities’13 Like a growing number of artists her work manages to straddle the divide. Times are moving on, and in the expanding international profile of contemporary African art, Odundo is one of the rare ceramists who is shown along with fine artists. She is one of only three ceramic artists included in Anghaza, African Art Now (2008) written by Christopher Spring, curator of the African Gallery at the British Museum.

Two of the articles in this issue discuss contemporary work that references traditional forms. Helga Gamboa, a ceramic artist of Angolan origins is now working in the UK. She uses ideas of hybridity combining the burnished terracotta forms of her African heritage with tin-glaze referencing Portuguese and colonial taste which is then used as a background for photographic decals relating to war and atrocities in Angola.

Nurith Kenaan-Kedar considers the strong gender associations of the water jar and the popular orientalist image of the woman at the well and links this with the more unusual form of the multi-spouted jar. The Israeli artist Eytan Gross creates more refined and elaborate versions of this model playing on the associations and indeed the suggestiveness of the form.

Indigenous ceramics may be under threat in the modern world but there are still many ways in which they re-appear in new forms and different market places and we need to understand better these processes and relationships.


Following the publication of earlier books, in 2006 I collaborated with Manchester Museum and curated ‘Sankofa, Ceramic tales from Africa’, which has since been revised in a form suitable for touring in the UK. The publication of this issue of Interpreting Ceramics coincides with a further project in collaboration with Carleton College and the Northern Clay Centre, Minneapolis, ‘World Ceramics, Transforming Women’s Traditions’ which I hope will lead to further research in the field. http://apps.carleton.edu/campus/gallery/worldceramics/essays/

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  1. See also his book based on an earlier Master’s thesis on Ladi Kwali. John T. Agberia Ladi Kwali, a Study of Indigenous and Modern Techniques of Abuja Pottery, Ibadan, Kraft Books, 2007. back to text
  2. See in particular Moira Vincentelli, Women and Ceramics, Gendered Vessels, Manchester University Press, 2000, and Women Potters Transforming Traditions London, A&C Black 2003. back to text
  3. Shelley Errington The Death of Primitive Art and Other Tales of Progress, Berkley, University of California Press, 1998, p 117. back to text
  4. James Clifford The Predicament of Culture, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1988, p. 224. back to text
  5. Nelson Graburn (ed.), Ethnic and Tourist Arts: Cultural Expressions from the Fourth World, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1976. back to text
  6. It would be difficult to do justice to the extensive literature on this subject but Susan Peterson Pottery by American Indian Women: the Legacy of Generations, New York, Abbeville Press, 1997 is a key text. For a much more cynical reading see Garth Clark’s catalogue essay for the exhibition Free Spirit, the New Native American Potter, Stedelijk Museum, Hertogenbosch, 2006. back to text
  7. Other books by Jane Perryman are Naked Clay, London, A&C Black 2004 and Traditional Pottery of India, London, A&C Black, 2000. back to text
  8. See Wasserspring Oaxacan Ceramics, Traditional Folk Art by Oaxacan Women, Chronicle Books, 2000; La Duke, ‘Earth Magic: The Legacy of Teodora Blanco’, in Bartra (ed.), Crafting Gender, Women and Folk Art in Latin America and the Caribbean, Durham and London, Duke University Press, 197-219. back to text
  9. Moira Vincentelli, ‘Gender, Pottery Technology and Development Projects’ Interpreting Ceramics, Issue 6. back to text
  10. Ronald Duncan ‘Women’s Folk Art in la Chamba’, in Bartra (ed.), Crafting Gender: Women and Folk Art in Latin America and the Caribbean, Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2003, p.129. back to text
  11. See, for example, the exhibition ‘Africa Explores: 20th Century African Art’, Center for African Art, New York City, 1991. back to text
  12. As we can see in Perrill’s article on MaMncube the tendency to represent African art as anonymous and timeless can work against traditional makers as it did when her work was shown in London in the Royal Academy of Arts 1995 catalogue Africa: The Art of a Continent. back to text
  13. Emmanuel Cooper ‘The Clay of Life: the Ceramic Vessels of Magdalene Odundo’ in Slayter-Ralph (ed) Magdalene Odundo, Aldershot, Lund Humphries 2004, p 53. back to text

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 all the images in this article rests with the author unless otherwise stated

Gender and Ceramics: Old Forms and New Markets • Issue 10