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by Victor M. Cassidy
"For Hearth and Altar: African Ceramics from the Keith Achepohl Collection," an exhibition of 125 African terra cotta pots made mostly during the 20th century, is the Art Institute of Chicago’s most stimulating, challenging show in memory. It takes us back to the origins of civilization and raises fundamental questions about the nature of art. Severe and unfamiliar, the work delivers no lazy sensual delights. Differences among the pieces are subtle. Viewers must look -- and think -- carefully to get the best from this work.

"For Hearth and Altar," which runs at the Art Institute, Dec. 3, 2005-Feb. 20, 2006, celebrates Keith Achepol’s gift of African ceramics to the Art Institute. A printmaker and now-retired art professor, Achepol acquired the pottery over 20 years, making many purchases on the spot in Africa. He used his artist’s eye to select pieces and then investigated the work he had just bought. Achepol calls African pots "profoundly handmade." He likes their anonymity -- the name of the artist is rarely known -- and says that these works are not about "who did it," but about beauty.

10,000 Year Tradition
African ceramics can be traced back to 8,000 BC, says Kathleen Bickford Berzock, curator of African art at the Art Institute and organizer of this exhibition. Pottery represents an important step in civilization, for it makes cooking and food storage possible. It appears in many parts of Africa at once, usually in connection with iron working.

Most potters are women and the trade is hereditary. Potters mine the clay (men help with this physically taxing chore), bring it to the village and work it to remove air bubbles that would explode as the vessel is fired. Some potters add temper (sand, ground-up pebbles, finely chopped fibers) to the clay, which makes it less plastic and prevents cracks during firing.

Starting with a mass of clay, most potters work by punching a hole in the center, and pulling the clay apart to give a vessel shape. Some flatten a clay shape over a convex mold and build up a vessel with coils. The potter’s wheel is uncommon. When they are ready for firing, a few large pots and many small ones are stacked together in the open. Then they are wood fired for about three hours at relatively low temperatures. Some tribes use pits and kilns.

Almost all pots have decoration, such as scoring, incising or burnishing. Some pots have raised embellishment, such as a face or a figure. Scarification marks that resemble those that tribeswomen make on their bodies appear on some pieces. According to Achepol, there’s a special "sense of drawing" in African pots. Some laid out flat could make a picture, he states.

Art or Ethnography?
Are these ceramics ethnographic artifacts or works of art? Made anonymously, the pots are used in the home and for rituals including burial. Tradition rather than individual expression determines decoration and there is little experimentation or stylistic development. We conclude that most of the pieces in "For Hearth and Altar" are ethnographic objects of very high quality. A few communicate on so many levels that they can be called works of art.

The African continent is three times the size of the U.S., with numerous regions, nations, tribes, languages and religious traditions. The show’s catalogue describes the pottery in terms of its geographic origin and places it in cultural context. Anyone who takes a serious interest in African art should acquire and read this catalogue, which is beautifully written and illustrated throughout. On the day of its publication, it became the standard work of reference on African pottery.

In the gallery, the African ceramics are presented according to use. The first pots that visitors see belong to the hearth. The show reaches its climax with the ritual objects, which are installed in a separate area on a wide altar-like platform. The pots are dramatically lit and displayed on large, low platforms, so that viewers can see them from many angles. The African work is exhibited as art, not as ethnography, and the presentation could hardly be better.

For the Hearth
Pottery making was a hereditary trade, but few of the girls who started training had sufficient talent and drive to become master potters. Since they followed a craft tradition, African potters expressed themselves in the shape, proportions, surfaces and details of their work. This is where to look for excellence in objects for the hearth.     

The Hausa Water or Storage Container from Niger was made by pressing clay over a convex mold and adding coils to complete the form. It is a subtle piece with the simplest of decoration, applied with a hand-held toothed device called a roulette. Elegantly globular, the pot has necklace-like indentations around its top and a curious cylindrical neck.

The Bamana Water Container (Jigada) from Mali is decorated with a lizard design. As the catalogue explains, the maker blackened this terra cotta pot by removing it from the fire and "immediately smoking it in a pile of sawdust, peanut shells, millet or rice chaff. She then plunged it, still burning hot, into a tree-bark bath in order to seal and further blacken it." 

The owner of the Nuna Storage Container from Burkina Faso partially buried its pointed bottom in the floor of her house. The exterior is roulette textured, appliquéd with a lizard form and carved with symbolic designs, such as the downward-pointing arrow at left, which may stand for woman. 

The Yacoma Bottle from the Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the most attractive pieces in the show. It has angled sides, with four stippled decorative bands and triangular designs, red and white pigment rubbed into the stippled depressions, and a burnished dark surface. According to the catalogue, Yacoma potters experimented with variations on this type of design.

For the Altar
To our eyes, the ritual African objects look like art because of their complex, symbolic decoration. They can be compared to European paintings of the Middle Ages, which are filled with narrative and symbols that communicated religious messages to an illiterate devotee.

The Altar Vessel from Burkina Faso is shown with its lid, which "protects the contents from natural and supernatural contamination," according to the catalogue. No woman may make such a vessel until she has reached menopause, because "it is believed that a woman who does so during her childbearing years risks becoming barren." The decoration on this pot is painstakingly applied -- animal forms and rows of spiky knobs, which are believed to protect against misfortune.

The Igbo Title-Taking Vessel is particularly beautiful with its spherical shape, quiet color, graceful neck and incised design. According to the catalogue, such vessels and their decoration were used "as a symbol of rank by titled Igbo men." This vessel may have been used to serve palm wine to honored guests.

The Ritual Container from the Mandara Mountains region of Nigeria and Cameroon was made with special care, says the catalogue. The spherical bottom is colored with red slip and the base of the three-legged tower form at top is surrounded with spike-like shapes that suggest a barrier. Pebbles are appliquéd onto the top portion, which is surmounted by a flared circle. According to the catalogue, these decorations may be associated with harvest and abundance.

The plump, upward-gazing Figural Vessel from Nigeria or Cameroon is probably connected with beliefs in the supernatural. Vessels in this style are made by women in Nigeria, but used in a men’s secret society called Wankya. This vessel is believed to represent a male, considered less dangerous than the female. Patches of color and a rough texture make the surface of this vessel particularly active and tactile.

Made in Tanzania, the Kisi or Pare Ritual Container has spikes on its surface and a head with a long nose and crested hairdo on its lid. The eyes are black glass beads, which associates this work with "a particularly powerful category of spirits that are symbolized by the color black," the catalogue states. The piece has a strong presence and communicates a sense of mystery and the hermetic.

Kathleen Bickford Berzock took ten years to assemble this show and write its accompanying publication. She succeeded spectacularly and we are all the beneficiaries. Congratulations -- and thanks (!) -- to Berzock, Achepol and all others associated with this splendid exhibition of art.

VICTOR M. CASSIDY writes on art from Chicago.