If the 23 ceramic vessels on view in the upcoming Georgia Museum of Art exhibit “Face Jugs: Art and Ritual in 19th-Century South Carolina” could talk, oh, the stories they could tell.
Art historians, academics and aficionados of this unique Southern ceramic tradition certainly would take extensive notes.
That’s because the origins of face jugs continue to be a source of mystery, though this exhibit of 23 rare pieces, opening at the Athens museum on May 4 for a run through July 7, seems to be helping those curious get closer to the truth. All of the jugs were created by enslaved African-American potters in the Edgefield district of South Carolina (which encompassed today’s Edgefield, Aiken and Greenwood counties in west-central South Carolina), a cradle of early America pottery production.
“We know that Edgefield face jugs were created by slaves, and later free African Americans in that district of South Carolina,” said Claudia Mooney, an assistant curator with Chipstone, a Milwaukee-based foundation dedicated to American decorative arts scholarship, who organized the exhibit. “We know that they were made from about 1860 to about 1880 or so, when they suddenly stopped being produced. We know that the form was appropriated by white potters in the 1880s.
“Unfortunately, though, their origin, function and meaning was lost with time,” Mooney continued on the Milwaukee Art Museum’s blog.
But now researchers believe there is a specific African connection.
In 1858, a slave ship anchored off Georgia’s Jekyll Island, and from it, more than 100 enslaved people from various Kongo societies were sent to Edgefield, where some were put to work at the potteries.
Within Kongo cultures, powerful diviners and shamans used spirit containers, called nkisi, to trap and then channel their potent powers, according to the Columbia (S.C.) Museum of Art. The museum added in background materials when the exhibit stopped in Columbia: “The diviner used the nkisi to initiate contact with the spirit world in an effort to either heal, harm or protect another individual through a ritual known today as a ‘conjure.’”
As enslaved people had no legal or civil rights, including the right to express themselves freely, some in Edgefield may have created the face jug as a way as sustaining these customs and beliefs. “Our curatorial team conceives that face jugs were a response to learning about nkisi (passed down through generations) combined with an already present trust in conjure,” curator Mooney said.
During the exhibit’s stay in Milwaukee, researchers deciphered writing on the back of one of the face jugs as “Squire Pofu,” which they translated from Swahili as “the blind Squire.”
Noting that the particular jug had one-of-a-kind black eyes, Mooney asked rhetorically, “Could this have been a conjure jug to cause blindness? Our research is still just beginning.”
Georgia Museum is at 90 Carlton St., Athens. 1-706-542-4662, www.georgiamuseum.org.
Other places to view a wide array of face jugs in Georgia:
- The Atlanta History Center includes among its permanent exhibits the pottery-rich “Shaping Traditions: Folk Arts in a Changing South.” 130 W. Paces Ferry Road, Atlanta. 404-814-4000, www.atlantahistorycenter.com.
- The Folk Pottery Museum of Northeast Georgia, near Helen, shows prime examples by members of the highly collected Meaders and Hewell families, among many other makers. 283 Ga. 255 in Sautee Nacoochee. 1-706-878-3300, www.folkpottery museum.com.
- The 13th Annual North Georgia Folk Potters Festival, 8 a.m.-2 p.m. June 15 at Banks County Middle School, will feature more than 40 Southeastern pottery-makers. 712 Thompson St., Homer. 1-706-677-1528, www.northgafolkpottersfestival.com.
Atlanta Boy Choir concert at St. Philip
The Atlanta Boy Choir, now in its 55th season, will be taking off for a performance tour of Nova Scotia this summer, but Atlantans don’t have to travel far to hear the group’s spring concert.
The choir’s 55 boys and men, under the direction of founder Fletcher Wolfe, will feature “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” in a 7:30 p.m. Fridayconcert at the Cathedral of St. Philip. This piece was composed on poems written by Jewish children held in the Terezin Concentration Camp. Atlanta stage actress-director Mira Hirsch will serve as narrator.
2744 Peachtree Road, Atlanta. $20; $10 students and seniors. 404-378-0064, www.atlantaboychoir.org.
Atlanta teen musician featured on NPR show
Atlanta cellist Wickliffe Simmons, 19, will appear on this week’s nationally broadcast radio show “From the Top,” aired locally at 5 p.m. Saturday on WABE-FM (90.1). Hosted by pianist Christopher O’Riley, the National Public Radio program features top young American classical musicians.
A senior at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School and a member of the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra, Simmons performs Maurice Ravel’s “Kaddish,” accompanied by O’Riley. The episode was taped at the University of Georgia’s Performing Arts Center in March. Info: www.fromthetop.org.
Art sale to benefit mental health center
Skyland Trail hosts a free “Arts in the Garden” event from 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Friday. Benefiting the nonprofit Atlanta mental health treatment center, the show and sale includes works by residents and donated pieces by Atlanta artists, demonstrations, performances and a sale of plants grown in the client-tended greenhouse.
In Skyland Trail’s Health and Education Center gymnasium, 1903 N. Druid Hills Road N.E., Atlanta. 678-686-5956, www.skylandtrail.org/aitg.