A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
African ceramics on view in Chicago
Storage Container, early/mid-20th century. Nuna; Burkina Faso. Collection of Keith Achepohl.
related: Hans Hammers African ceramics
Study of shapes and subtleties in African ceramics on view in Chicago.
For Hearth and Altar: African Ceramics from the Keith Achepohl
Thursday, December 15, 2005 found on CNN
CHICAGO, Illinois (AP) -- There's a special exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, but don't look for the bright hues of the French impressionism for which the museum is famous; the colors of these works are the muted earth tones of African mud and clay.
The brightest splashes of color in "For Hearth and Altar: African Ceramics From The Keith Achepohl Collection" come from the huge accompanying photographs on the walls, which show African potters and the techniques they use to create earthenware.
A ritual jar from the inland Niger Delta in Mali, left, and a water container from Burkina Faso are on display.
The understated exhibition is a quietly fascinating study of shapes and subtleties.
"Look at these forms!" Kathleen Bickford Berzock, the show's curator, said while walking through the gallery. "We'll never know exactly what some of these objects were used for, but their forms are fascinating -- and fun, too."
The exhibition consists of 125 pieces from the personal collection of Achepohl, a printmaker and professor emeritus at the University of Iowa who plans to donate many of them to the Art Institute.
In an interview with Berzock, Achepohl explained that he became interested in pottery when he looked at pictures of classic Greek vases and dishes in his high school Latin class in Elmhurst.
But the Greek pieces were thrown on potters' wheels, glazed and decorated by professional artists -- very different from the rough-textured African work Achepohl prizes today. But it was that no-frills quality that attracted Achepohl when he encountered his first African pottery while bicycling through southern Egypt in 1977.
A few years later, he became a serious collector of such ware, largely in reaction to the 1980s art market, which he called "corporate interior decorating, with astronomical prices being given to work that really didn't merit them."
African pots, he found, were relatively cheap, idiosyncratically beautiful, and usually the work of anonymous artisans -- something he found attractive.
"I like it because I knew I was always going to be looking at these things for what they were as objects, not for 'who did it,' because all the rest of the art world is about 'who did it,"' he told Berzock. She wrote the show's catalog and took many of the photographs accompanying the ceramic works.
The pieces on display present a fascinating cross-section of African cultures, from the geometrical Taureg designs of Morocco in the northwest to the equally abstract creations of the Zulu potters in South Africa. In between, are numerous strange anthropomorphic and animal forms from the Niger and Congo basins, the Sudan and East Africa.
The photographs by Berzock and others bring an added dimension to the exhibition and the catalog by showing the potters at their work. Few of the pots and jars on display, and none of the mysterious ceremonial objects, were thrown on the wheel. Some were created by the most basic "pinch pot" technique, while others were built up through the almost equally ancient coil method, in which potters stack ropes of clay to create forms.
A large storage container from Burkina Faso
But as the photographs show, more sophisticated techniques also were at work. In arid regions where water is at a premium, for example, the potters form templates by hollowing out palm tree stumps and then tamp only slightly damp clay into the resulting concave mold with mallets -- sometimes achieving amazingly thin walls. And in some cultures, fresh clay is molded over the bottom of older earthenware so the old pot "gives birth" to the new one.
That analogy extends into the material of the pots, too. Because closed kilns are rare in Africa and the heat of open fires is variable, pottery can crack from uneven expansion. To avoid that, the potters take old pots, crush them into powder, and add that powder to the new clay as a "temper."
Some of the items in Achepohl's collection are 500 or 600 years old, but most are from the early to middle 20th century -- the period just before the importation of cheap plastic goods put the potters' work in jeopardy.
But despite their relatively recent origin, most of the works have a timeless quality. Stylized human forms, as basic as stick figures, decorate a large and subtly mottled storage bowl from Burkina Faso. In another piece, a snake and a lizard pursue each other eternally around a water container from the same general area.
Many of the shapes are of unknown purpose, but one of the oddest is practical. A Moroccan milk jug looks awkward at first with its conical neck growing from a football-shaped body. And then the handle on the neck gives away the secret -- the jug doubles as a butter churn.
"For Hearth and Altar" runs through February 20, 2005 and will not travel.
Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.
Discover the African Art books I like or join me on facebook
African Antiques is the archive and not growing much anymore but still updated.
Visit African Art to join our free newsletter and read recent African Art News.
For the last news about Chicago-ceramics you should join our African Art Club and become an insider of the African art market.
And if you are a collector of African Art, have a look at our exclusive African Art Collection for sale.
Tribal Arts of Africa
read also :
mail David Norden phone +32 3 227.35.40