In Ann Arbor there are at least six pottery studios that specialize in the art of ceramics. Students can take a “Try the Wheel” class, and many sign up for longer courses and come home with homemade bowls and great story pieces.

Ceramics is one of many folk arts that have boomed in popularity in recent years—aided in part by forced time spent at home during Covid-19. Woodworking, blacksmithing, and glassblowing are all experiencing a revival, but the time and expense required means that these “hobbies” are primarily practiced by folks with a certain amount of socio-economic privilege.

But each of these craft traditions has an industrial past, steeped in complex and often brutal circumstances. This fall, the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) will host a traveling exhibition, Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina, that provokes important questions about enslavement, industry, art, and meaning. The majority of the objects on display are pots and jugs made by unknown enslaved craftspeople in the nineteenth century. These works feature distinctive features: face jugs with expressive eyes and gnashing teeth; massive pots with curvaceous shoulders.

Unrecorded potter, attributed to Miles Mill Pottery (1867–85), Old Edgefield District, South Carolina. Face jug, 1867–85. Alkaline-glazed stoneware with kaolin. Hudgins Family Collection, New York (© Metropolitan Museum of Art, photo by Eileen Travell).

Works by contemporary artists are also placed throughout the exhibition in conversation with the past.

This multi-temporal approach was a significant effort by the curatorial team to examine and display these objects in a holistic way. Indeed, the team itself is interdisciplinary: Adrienne Spinozzi, associate curator, The American Wing, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City; Ethan Lasser, John Moors Cabot Chair of the Art of the Americas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and U-M’s own Jason R. Young, associate professor of history, specializing in art, religion, and folk culture in the Atlantic world.

In 2007 Young published Rituals of Resistance: African Atlantic Religion in Kongo and the Lowcountry Region of Georgia and South Carolina in the Era of Slavery—an exploration into the religious and ritual practices that circulated around the Black Atlantic. In addition to religious practices, Young also studies the circulation of ritual objects, some of which are on display in Hear Me Now.

In 2018, Young connected with Spinozzi and Lasser, and together they began building the exhibition.

“This process has been collaborative from the beginning,” said Young. “We have reached out to a range of experts, including activists, artists, and scholars.”

Often in the art world, pieces are presented with limited—if any—historical context. As some art theorists would say, art should speak for itself. But the Hear Me Now collaborators knew that these particular artworks had important stories to tell, which brought about unique challenges.

“The show raises some thorny questions regarding what can be considered art, especially when that material was produced under a system of extreme violence and coercion,” Young explained. “While we are committed to presenting these pieces as the artworks that they are, we also recognize that the historical and cultural context surrounding them is vital for the public to receive.”

The historical context for this collection lies in the district of Old Edgefield, South Carolina.

The region was a hub of industry in the nineteenth century—and a hub of slavery. “Although a relatively small place, Edgefield played an outsized role in state politics, both in the lead up to the Civil War as well as in the era of Jim Crow segregation,” Young said.

Curators Ethan Lasser (left), Adrienne Spinozzi (center), and Jason Young (right) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art installation of Hear Me Now in fall 2022 (photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art).

“Many South Carolinian governors hailed from Edgefield, and the state’s most well known politician, Strom Thurmond, was from Edgefield.”

But the other standout feature of Old Edgefield was its clay—a special composure of kaolin that made for solid and effective firing.

“It’s one of the great coincidences,” Young said, “that the kaolin clay in Edgefield is the same type of kaolin clay also present in West-Central Africa where it was used for ritual and religious purposes.”

“Enslaved Africans from the region would have recognized the kaolin they found in Carolina, and so it makes sense that they introduced it into the face vessels that they produced. These vessels may very well have had some spiritual significance.”

As hundreds of thousands of displaced and enslaved Africans arrived on the shores of South Carolina, many were transported to Edgefield and put to work turning pots and creating other utilitarian ceramic ware.

Often the history of enslavement is depicted as agricultural, but this exhibition aims to illustrate the diversity of industrial roles and the many hands involved in even just the ceramics trade.

“Imagine all the labor required to fell the trees needed to fire the kilns—firings that often took place over the course of several days,” Young said.

The physical exertion required to make the pots was also mighty. Without electricity, potters had to pedal the wheel themselves, turning heavy mounds of thick clay. The larger objects would then have to be built up further with coils.

Most of the pottery from the region was created by anonymous craftspeople whose names we’ll never know, but Hear Me Now features works from a few named artisans as well as a wall of names that lists some of the known potters of Edgefield.

One potter who stands out is David Drake. Also known as Dave, or Dave the Potter, he made a powerful mark on his wares.

“It was significant that Dave signed his pots at a time when being literate could have gotten him killed,” said Young. “Not only did he sign his name, he inscribed poetry of his own unique, often humorous brand.”

A jug he made in 1858, for example, reads: “A very Large Jar which has 4 handles  / pack it full of fresh meats—then light candles.”

In the exhibition catalog, Vincent Brown, professor at Harvard University, grappled with the thorny questions about whether enslaved laborers like Dave might have found meaning and purpose in their work.

Hear Me Now just before opening in the A. Alfred Taubman Gallery, University of Michigan Museum of Art (Photo: Gregory Parker).

“A lighter touch,” he wrote, “might bring insights on how labor meant to degrade human beings could, paradoxically, and against the committed will of enslavers and oppressors, become a source of self-esteem and public admiration.”

Pottery is very fragile and yet is one of the most enduring materials. Between digging the clay from the ground and the final firing, there are so many points at which it can fail.

“Much like the clay body, so too is the human body fleeting and frail,” Young wrote in the catalog. “So too is it resilient, hardened by the fiery trials of life. So too can it be broken, cracked, and punctured.”

Despite the excitement of the collaboration with the Met and the Museum of Fine Arts, Young sees great benefits to bringing the collection to a university museum. 

“At UMMA, there is so much opportunity for critical questions of all kinds,” Young said. “In a university setting, debate, discussion and controversy is at the heart of what we do.”

And there are other benefits as well. This fall, Young is teaching a related course for first-year students: “The Art of History: Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina.” Students in the course will have the opportunity to engage with the exhibition and with UMMA, and consider those difficult questions from their own perspective.

The class is also included as part of the College of LSA’s Arts and Resistance Theme Semester. And there really is no story more suited to the theme than that of this collection.

Guests from southeast Michigan and beyond who experience the show during its Ann Arbor stop are encouraged to consider the history local to their communities.

It might prompt them to think about the craft industries that were supported by enslaved or disenfranchised artisans. They might want to learn about the styles and designs unique to those materials and communities. And, they will hopefully reflect on how these legacies live on today.

In Ann Arbor, ceramics continue to thrive as a popular hobby and—for some—a career. Handling clay connects us to the earth, literally. Hear Me Now can help us learn how to form a connection to our history as well.

Originally published in the 2023 edition of the History Matters magazine.