Ceramic Arts at the National Museum of African Art
The beauty and richness of Africa's pottery resonates through the traditional and modern ceramic works of art collected by the National Museum of African Art. The continent's master potters--primarily women--display their dexterity by handbuilding a variety of vessels, coloring their surfaces with slips or other concoctions prepared from clay or vegetable sources, incising or impressing decorations with wood or metal tools, and firing the vessels at low temperatures. The rich earthen bodies of their creations are often decorated and sometimes burnished.

The museum has 140 ceramic works from different regions of the continent. Among the most important are a group of 85 vessels from Central Africa. A few of these pieces are displayed here along with other traditional works, including a beer container from the Chewa peoples of Malawi, a water vessel from the Yoruba of Nigeria, and water and oil containers from the Berber of Algeria. Contemporary and figurative ceramic works are on view on Level 1.

The Art of Form and Decoration

The malleable quality of moist clay and a potter's skill allow her to create forms ranging from bowls of minimal form to water bottles of complex shapes. These objects, often cherished by individuals and families, may remain undecorated or may be embellished in various ways.

Once a vessel is formed and dried to a leather-hard state, a potter has a series of choices. She may cut intricate designs into the clay surface with a wood or metal blade; create a roughened, textured surface by impressing patterns with a roulette; burnish the surface to a high sheen; or alter the original form by adding handles, clay pellets, or strips. She may color the entire surface or apply a slip (colored, clay wash) to highlight the decorative areas, which often appear on the most visible parts of a vessel--namely, the neck and shoulders.

After a vessel has completely dried, it is fired at a low temperature. Once fired, the pot is set aside to cool. Sometimes, a pot is smothered in leaves or splashed with or dipped in a broth of tree bark or leaves and then left to cool.

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