On view March 4–July 9, 2023 MFA Boston
An exploration into history can sometimes lead us to stories long buried, waiting to be unearthed, much like the pottery at the heart of a new landmark exhibition. “Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina” held at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), will open on March 4, 2023, and run until July 9, 2023. This exhibition is a testament to a crucial yet neglected narrative of American history, shedding light on the overlooked artistic contributions of African Americans in the pre-Civil War era.
For the first time in MFA’s history, the exhibition will bring together works unequivocally attributed to enslaved Americans. The near 60 ceramic objects from Old Edgefield, South Carolina, tell a stirring tale of art, enslavement, joy, struggle, creative ambition, and the lived experiences of African Americans.
Bridging the Centuries Through Art
The primary highlight of the exhibition is the collection of monumental storage jars crafted by the enslaved, literate potter and poet, Dave (later known as David Drake). Also on display are utilitarian wares and enigmatic face vessels, some created by unrecorded makers. These artifacts will be complemented by the works of leading contemporary Black artists such as Theaster Gates, Adebunmi Gbadebo, Simone Leigh, Woody De Othello, and Robert Pruitt. These artists, working primarily in clay, resonate with the Edgefield story and respond to the legacy of the Edgefield potters.
Through their works, they consider the implications of this untold chapter in American history for today’s audiences, offering a significant link between the past and the present. Thus, “Hear Me Now” is not merely a historical presentation; it is an ongoing dialogue between eras, mediated through the timeless medium of clay.
The Hidden Story of the Edgefield Potters
In the early 1800s, white settlers established potteries in the Old Edgefield district, South Carolina, exploiting the area’s abundant natural clay. Enslaved African Americans were forced to work in this industry, producing thousands of ceramic vessels annually by the 1840s.
These individuals bore the entire responsibility of this labor-intensive craft – from mining and preparing the clay to throwing vast quantities of ware, decorating and glazing vessels, and even transporting the finished wares to various regional markets.
These enslaved men, women, and children were considered part of a larger system of “industrial slavery,” whereby their knowledge, experience, and expertise were exploited. Their labor and know-how were often claimed by white enslavers and factory owners, who would mark the wares with their own names.
However, among the sea of nameless craftsmen, one artist emerged, marking a significant departure from the norm. Dave, later known as David Drake, would sign, date, and incise verses on many of his jars, asserting his presence and skill in an environment that often sought to erase it. His verses bear witness to the joys, traumas, and lived experiences of enslavement, echoing the prose of abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs.
A Story in Clay: The Face Vessels
The exhibition will also showcase a selection of 19 face vessels or jugs, spiritual objects that the enslaved potters likely crafted for their own use. These artifacts are believed to have emerged around the 1858 arrival in Georgia of The Wanderer, a slave ship that illegally transported over 400 captive Africans, some of whom were sent to work in Edgefield potteries.
These and 6 prompts to get to this output. The exhibition “Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina” is significant as it is the first time MFA has showcased works that can be unequivocally attributed to enslaved Americans. These historical art pieces provide an invaluable glimpse into the lives of those who were often forgotten or ignored, revealing stories of joy, struggle, and creative ambition in the difficult decades before the Civil War. Ethan Lasser, one of the exhibition’s co-curators, has emphasized the importance of an open curatorial process, which has involved many voices and perspectives. This collaborative process has brought about new scholarship, making this exhibition a platform for giving voice to the unheard, a stage for artists, MFA staff, and local community members to narrate an often overlooked chapter of American history.
As you delve into the story of the Old Edgefield district, it’s essential to understand the historical backdrop that brought about the establishment of these potteries. In the early 1800s, white settlers, attracted by the region’s natural clays, founded these enterprises in the rural expanses of South Carolina’s western edge. Enslaved African Americans bore the brunt of this labor-intensive industry, generating tens of thousands of vessels annually by the 1840s. Although history often frames slavery in the context of agricultural activities like cotton and tobacco farming, the pottery from Old Edgefield unveils a distinct narrative: a story of industrial slavery, which valued expertise and knowledge.
Many enslaved men, women, and children were compelled to labor in Edgefield’s potteries, each responsible for various aspects of the craft. Their tasks ranged from mining and preparing clay, throwing a vast quantity of ware, decorating and glazing vessels, gathering fuel for and overseeing firing, to building, loading, and unloading kilns, and even transporting the wares to regional markets. However, their creativity and skills were often eclipsed by the factory owners who would stamp their names on the vessels, claiming the work and wisdom of the enslaved as their own.
Against this backdrop of anonymity, a remarkable potter known as Dave, later recorded as David Drake, stood out. Despite the law of the time that criminalized literacy among enslaved individuals, he signed, dated, and incised verses on many of his jars. Dave’s writings, featured on 12 of his monumental masterpieces in the exhibit, witness to the joys, traumas, and lived experiences of enslavement. His work echoes the prose of abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, making the exhibit not just a display of art, but a testament of resilience and resistance against oppression.
Among the exhibition’s highlights are 19 face vessels or jugs—powerful spiritual objects likely made for the Edgefield potters’ own use. These vessels, reminiscent of West-Central African minkisi, echo a resurgence of African-inspired art, religion, and culture following the 1858 arrival of The Wanderer, a slave ship illegally transporting over 400 captive Africans. This historical intersection suggests that the influence of these newly arrived enslaved individuals sparked a revival of African artistic and spiritual practices within the region.
“Hear Me Now” is not just an historical exhibition, it is also a dialogue between the past and present. The exhibition features contemporary works from leading black artists who, through their creative expression, respond to and amplify the Edgefield story. Artists such as Robert Pruitt, Simone Leigh, Woody De Othello, Theaster Gates, and Adebunmi Gbadebo employ their craft to fill gaps in this often-fragmentary history. Each artist, in their unique way, responds to the Edgefield potters’ legacy, reflecting on its resonance for contemporary audiences.
The exhibition debuted at the Met in September 2022. After the MFA’s presentation, it will travel to the University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor (August 26, 2023–January 7, 2024) and the High Museum of Art, Atlanta (February 16–May 12, 2024).