We know a few things about David Drake: He was often called just “Dave” or “Dave the Potter.” He was born into slavery around 1801 and was owned by the Drake family, from which his surname derives. And he was an extraordinary artist and poet.
Dave was one of 76 known potters who worked in the factories of Edgefield, South Carolina. More is known about him than many of the other 75 because he is thought to be the first enslaved potter to inscribe his work with poetry and a signature at a time when it was forbidden for enslaved people to read and write.
“He wanted the world to know he was a human being. He wanted the world to know he could learn. … I’m somebody,” says Daisy Whitner, a fourth-generation granddaughter of Dave. “He knew one day, someone would see something in his art.”
Dave’s work has now been seen by thousands of people at museums in New York and Boston, is currently at the U-M Museum of Art (UMMA) in Ann Arbor, and will soon travel to Atlanta. Next to other potters and artists, his work is featured in the exhibition Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina, which was co-curated by Jason R. Young, associate professor of history at LSA.
Young studied Black populations in the American South and their historical ties to traditions from West-Central Africa long before he imagined a show like Hear Me Now coming together. Young’s work led him to the Old Edgefield District, South Carolina, and pottery that was made there before and after the Civil War.
The vessels appealed to Young because of the story of resistance they represented. Young was originally interested in the face vessels in particular—pottery made privately after hours by enslaved potters and connected to community practices in West-Central Africa—but he soon learned that these face vessels were part of a larger narrative.
Edgefield pottery is specific to the factories it was created in and the communities that crafted it. Known for earthy brown alkaline-glazed tones, the pottery was produced on a mass scale and distributed throughout the United States. Much like Tupperware in people’s cupboards in recent decades, Edgefield stoneware was often used for utility.
But Hear Me Now highlights how Black potters on industrial plantations made unique stoneware to resist a system that white slaveholders were profiting from. Edgefield potters took agency back from the people that kept them in bondage, and many times, right in front of those in power.
“Dave included magnificent poem couplets, which in many cases point to the harsh reality and brutality of slavery. But he does so with an artistic flair that allows him to be critical of the system, and yet articulate that criticism in full view,” says Young. “This is something that is part of African American aesthetic and creative traditions.”
One of Dave’s verses “documents the destruction of his family and the demand that he survive that with a smile,” Harvard professor Vincent Brown writes in an essay included in a book that accompanies the exhibition. “It seems to be a greeting, a sarcastic joke, and a curse all at once.”
The verse inscribed by Dave says: “I wonder where is all my relation /Friendship to all—and every nation.”
While Dave signed many of his works, others did not. “We don’t have access to many of the names, so we had to invent a mechanism to acknowledge this reality,” Young says. Many of the potters’ names have been lost but rather than label the creators “unknown,” Young and the other curators chose to use a blank underscore and the terminology “Potter once known,” acknowledging that Edgefield potters were known to many and have descendants living today.
The practice is new to museum spaces but truthfully acknowledges history, putting the onus of reckoning back on those who erased Black names and histories by not acknowledging their humanity or contributions.
Young also points to the larger story of each example of Edgefield pottery in the show. “It may be true that these materials were produced by individual potters, but it is really more true to say that these objects were created by communities.” Young says that from cutting down trees to burning wood in the kilns, to mining clay, to turning pots, there were whole groups of people that were part of making each piece of stoneware. “In some ways, the potter is the last person to touch the process, not the first,” he says. “We cannot and probably will never know the names of all the hands that went into the production of the material, but it’s important for us to acknowledge the communal ethic that was behind it.”
Dave worked among others in Edgefield’s 12 factories for many years, creating pieces that are now auctioned for six figures and collected in museums. Yet he was enslaved when he made the work, and even if his work was clearly at a level of artistry far beyond most, it did not protect his family from being broken apart when his wife and children were sold and sent to Louisiana.
The stark reality is that Dave, his family, and others in Edgefield, were owned, which raises questions that Hear Me Now hopes to address. Questions like: What does it mean to value Edgefield pottery in museums or personal art collections? One can’t help but think about how the vessels were made while their creators were enslaved, never receiving compensation. Very few of the Edgefield collections are held by the descendants of those who produced them. And since the collections are largely held by white institutions that continue to profit from them, is it fair to assign a monetary value at all?
“Toward the end of the show we’re going to have a fairly robust conversation that will include Theaster Gates as one of the speakers,” Young says, referencing an acclaimed Chicago artist whose art appears in the exhibition. “We’ll also have an open public conversation about some of the vexed questions that emerge as a result of a show like this.”
Alongside its nods toward history, Hear Me Now also incorporates contemporary art, including that of Adebunmi Gbadebo. Her family is connected to the legacy of slavery in South Carolina and she has brought that into her practice. Gbadebo’s ancestors were enslaved on the True Blue plantation not far from Edgefield. “She has been instrumental to the curatorial team,” says Young.
Gbadebo’s pieces What We Carry and K.S. represent connections to the history and region. Both are modern ceramic forms of pottery and are included alongside the stoneware from 1800s Edgefield.
Gbadebo mined the soil of the plantation cemetery where her ancestors are buried and created clay that became the vessels now in the show. Gbadebo also used hair from living people in the Black community and filled one piece with South Carolina gold rice, a grain that was produced on plantations, to create work that connects the past and present. “She’s incredibly intentional about her art practice,” says Young. “She’s really thinking about the kinds of materials that have defined the Black experience in this country.”
Other contemporary artists in the exhibition are Simone Leigh, Theaster Gates, and Woody De Othello. Modern pottery by the late Earl Robbins of the Catawba Indian Nation was included to recognize that pottery making in the region had been a practice for many thousands of years before colonization, and that the same clay mined at Old Edgefield factories is connected to Native communities and tribal histories that live on today.
Hear Me Now came to fruition after Young’s talks with co-curators Adrienne Spinozzi of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and Ethan Lasser of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. They had all been interested in Edgefield pottery, which led to a discussion about working collaboratively on a project. In contrast to many exhibitions about slavery and its legacies, they did not want to present an authoritative curatorial voice. They were more interested in letting the pottery speak for itself and providing access to a multitude of communities, which led to the creation of a unique audio guide that gave voice to many viewpoints, both from within and outside of academia.
“At every stage, we have opened the conversation up to experts, community activists, to contemporary artists, to historians, and others,” says Young.
Their efforts culminated with a show that first opened at The Met in New York City, was reinterpreted at the MFA in Boston, is currently reimagined at UMMA, and then will travel to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, where it will also be shown in a new rendering.
“I am extremely pleased with the show,” says Young. “But I think the thing that I’m most proud of is just how collaborative the process has been. We’ve been working toward building new curatorial practices that I think will be meaningful. We all were working independently on this but from completely different angles.”
Hear Me Now changes at each institution, keeping it dynamic and connected to communities regionally. “We have, at each point, mobilized the local expertise—that is, the site-specific expertise in the museums, but also, it’s been open to people outside the museum world,” says Young.
Young worked closely with UMMA staff to bring Hear Me Now to the Ann Arbor community in a meaningful way. “This isn’t just a story about some other place,” says Lisa Borgsdorf, UMMA’s associate director of public experience and learning. “There are so many people from the Black community here in Michigan who can trace their lineage back to South Carolina.”
Young’s work and Hear Me Now ultimately remind audiences that histories like this often go untold, but only in certain American homes. For the African American community, Edgefield is not so far away. The legacy of Old Edgefield might be as far as a grandparent’s house, where there are likely pictures of family members who would have been born into slavery.
“Although this story might be new to some, and in some ways it’s a new story to tell in museum spaces, it’s a longstanding story, and Black communities have been upholding and stewarding it for a long time,” says Young.
Learn more about Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina
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